Dubai’s rising profile in medical tourism

Dubai's hospitals and clinics report a rising number of medical tourists from Gulf, Middle East, Africa and Central Asia.

Doctors perform cosmetic surgery at the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery Hospital in Dubai. Courtesy AACSH
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For a few years, Anna searched without success for doctors for a stomach liposuction in her hometown of Kiev.

Instead, the 36-year-old considered finding a doctor in Dubai, which she has visited two to three times a year for the past four years.

Acting on the recommendation of a hospital in Ukraine, she did some research on the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery Hospital in Dubai Healthcare City (DHCC).

She bounced the idea off her friends in the emirate, and finally booked an appointment with a doctor there.

“I can’t say it is cheaper here in Dubai, but it is giving good results,” says the Ukrainian, who had the surgery last month.

She is among thousands who come to Dubai each year for treatment, and their numbers have been booming. With development in infrastructure such as hospitals and clinics, medical tourism in the emirate is growing.

“In addition to having heavily invested in building state-of-the-art facilities, the UAE Government is also introducing policies to encourage accreditation of existing healthcare facilities by internationally recognised bodies,” says Sanjay Vig, the managing director of Alpen Capital Middle East.

The figures available from Dubai Health Authority (DHA) for 2012 show that medical tourists contributed about 8.7 per cent of the total health sector revenue.

That year, an estimated 107,500 medical tourists came for treatment at 23 hospitals, five day-surgery facilities and 1,181 clinics. And the number of patients is increasing at a compound annual growth rate of 15 per cent, according to DHA. The top source markets include Russia, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, India and Pakistan.

The sought-after treatments include orthopaedics and sports medicine, plastic surgery, ophthalmology, dental procedures and dermatology.

The growth of airlines and infrastructure were among the factors giving Dubai “a global position that is helping it in medical tourism”, says Harish Pillai, the chief executive of the Dubai-based DM Healthcare’s Aster MedCity complex in Kochi, India.

Mandatory accreditation for hospitals, quality clinical governance and the economic catalyst of health insurance regulation in Dubai are all increasing the emirate’s stature.

And DHA and Dubai Tourism and Commerce Marketing are working to streamline the process.

“DHA is planning to develop a single window operation through a dedicated website or electronic access points in key locations to provide information and connect medical tourists to healthcare facilities in Dubai,” says Linda Abdullah Ruhi, the team leader for the medical tourism initiative at DHA.

At DHCC, which operates as a separate entity, about 15 per cent of the total patients are medical tourists. Last year, the complex catered to 1 million patients, up from 400,000 in 2010.

The patients there came from Arabian Gulf countries, as well as Libya, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, Tunisia and Djibouti. DHCC is now aiming to attract patients from Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

DHCC currently employs 4,000 people across two hospitals and 120 outpatient medical centres and diagnostic laboratories.

“We are encouraging partnerships with medical tourism facilitators that provide overseas patients with a comprehensive solution by connecting them to the doctors and arranging for their travel, accommodation and transportation requirements,” says Marwan Abedin, DHCC’s chief executive.

It appointed its first medical tourism facilitator, Salamatak Healthcare Management, late last year.

The common treatments that patients seek at DHCC include complementary and alternative medicine, cosmetic surgery, dentistry, endocrinology and eye care. But DHCC is also increasing its capacity in other fields, such as oncology.

By the third quarter of next year, DHCC’s Mediclinic City Hospital will have an oncology unit with 43 outpatient consultation suites.

London’s Moorfields Eye Hospital, which opened its doors in DHCC in 2007, caters to medical tourists seeking treatments such as lens implants, corneal grafts, surgical treatment of glaucoma, strabismus (also known as cross eyes) and eyelid surgery. Most of them come from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, according to the hospital.

Last year, 677 patients came from outside the country, and the number is expected to exceed 800 in the current year.

The ease of travelling to Dubai is one of the drivers for the growth of this sector, says Mariano Gonzalez, the managing director at Moorfields in Dubai.

“The UAE has a well-developed regulatory framework, and for many people in the region, visas are not a problem,” he says.

Prices are the same for local and international patients, but differences in payment arise because of insurance. The majority of international patients pay by cash at Moorfields, unlike most UAE residents who are covered by insurance.

In Al Barsha, Sharjah’s Al Zahra hospital opened its doors in 2012, and reports that 5 per cent of its patients come from abroad. Most of them are from the Gulf and African countries.

This year, it expects about 2,000 international patients.

Dubai’s status as a hub for business, advanced technology and high security and its huge expatriate community all lend to the medical tourism proposition, says Sheikh Mohammed Al Qasimi, the managing director of Al Zahra Dubai Hospital.

At American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery Hospital, medical tourists account for half of all patients. The hospital has been catering to the segment since 2007.

“Medical tourists seek predominantly surgical treatments that are either not available in their own countries or are performed at a much higher safety and quality level here in the UAE,” says Jeehan Abdul Qadir, the hospital’s executive chairwoman.

These treatments include liposuction, breast augmentation, autologous fat transfer and post-cancer breast reconstruction.

“A good number of patients” also come for general and cosmetic dental procedures, she says.

Most of the centre’s patients are from the Arabian Gulf, the Middle East and North Africa. Last year they comprised 71.6 per cent of its medical tourists, a 10 per cent increase from the previous year.

Ms Qadir says the centre is also attracting more patients from Russia and CIS countries, which last year sent 17.8 per cent of all medical tourists.

To cater to these patients, hospitals in Dubai usually provide customised services, a practice common in other countries that cater to medical tourists, such as Thailand, India and Singapore.

At the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery Hospital, international patients get assistance in communicating with the local embassies and missions, hotel reservations for family members, travel requirements, airport pick-up and translation services besides their medical needs.

Meanwhile, Anna has decided to return to Dubai for more cosmetic surgeries.

“As a tourist city and a place for cosmetic surgery this is great; at the same time you can rest and enjoy your holidays with your children, especially now when it is cold in my country,” she said. “I will be back [for more cosmetic surgeries]; as all women want to look beautiful.”

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