Capital idea: South Korea's doctors in Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi has turned to South Korean hospitals for complex surgeries such as vocal chord restoration and removing head tumours. Now Korea hopes to bring its doctors to the capital.

South Korean fans attend a World Cup qualifier in Dubai. Growing trade links with the UAE has led to 7,000 South Koreans taking up residence in the Emirates. Mike Young / The National
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Abu Dhabi has turned to South Korean hospitals for complex surgeries such as vocal-chord restoration and removing head tumours.

Now South Korea hopes to bring its doctors to Abu Dhabi.

Seoul National University Hospital, a private facility partly supervised by the Korean government, is in talks to open several clinics to cater to the expatriate South Korean population in the emirate and treat Emiratis for conditions such as diabetes.

"There are many different potential partners," said Dr Myung-Whun Sung, the hospital's vice president for global planning and development. "The relationship between the two countries is getting more and more important.

"So as a national university hospital, we'd like to provide some medical care for Koreans in the Middle East area, as well as provide our health care to the local community, too."

Seven thousand South Koreans live in the UAE, mainly as a result of the tens of billions of dollars in trade between the two nations such as the nuclear power plants to be built in Abu Dhabi and the construction of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The number of Koreans in the Emirates is projected to hit 13,000 in two years, according to a 2010 study by the South Korean Embassy.

A deal could be hammered out within months for clinics focusing on diabetes and stomach cancer, diseases common among Koreans, Dr Sung said at the hospital's campus in Seoul.

The plans come on the heels of an agreement signed in November between the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi and the Korean ministry of health and welfare to send Emirati patients for specialised treatment to four hospitals: Seoul National University; Samsung Seoul Medical Centre; Asan Medical Centre; and Seoul St Mary's.

That deal could benefit the Korean economy by as much as US$52 million (Dh191m), according to the Korean government.

"We look for regions where those demands are," said Dr Sung. "Those areas should be in the Middle East, where you have other resources but you don't have good human resources in health care."

In turning towards the Middle East, the hospital's history mirrors that of its country.

Founded under the Lee dynasty in 1885, the hospital was one of the first practitioners of western medicine in Korea. At its hilly campus in northern Seoul, a red-brick building with a tower that looks as though it sprang from the campus of an Ivy League college bears testament to the hospital's early years when it catered to the society's elite.

But in 1910, the hospital came under Japanese colonial control. Only after the Second World War did it officially become Seoul National University Hospital.

Today it is run by an independent corporation, has 4,000 beds and counts itself a competitor, in fields such as stomach cancer, to medical powerhouses such as Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital. It also has offices in Los Angeles and New York, where it refers Korean Americans to Seoul for treatment.

Dr Sung was speaking in the hospital's main building, a modern glass structure opposite the red-brick original. Two floors have been added to cater just to foreign patients, and signs in English and Korean point to pristine white hallways. Until five years ago, many patients were expats or came from nearby nations such as China, Mongolia and Vietnam.

But as South Korean engineering and construction companies have turned towards the Gulf, and the South Korean government deepens ties to secure oil and gas in the region, Seoul National University Hospital has also focused on the Middle East to develop its medical tourism trade.

Abu Dhabi pays for 2,500 to 3,000 nationals a year to visit hospitals abroad for complex procedures such as cancer treatment and spinal surgery. The UAE has almost two doctors for every 1,000 people compared with 3.8 per 1,000 in Germany, the country to which Abu Dhabi sends the most medical tourists, according to the World Health Organization.

In December, the first UAE patient covered under the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi agreement underwent surgery at Seoul National University Hospital to repair vocal chords that had been badly damaged as a baby.

Dr Sung, who also chairs the head and neck surgery department that oversaw the surgery, was examining the medical history of another Emirati whom he expected to arrive soon. The teenage male has an 8-centimetre tumour behind his nose, known in medical terms as a juvenile angiofibroma. If it grows much bigger, he could lose his sight.