Hospitals and healthcare hubs in the UAE are increasingly looking abroad to attract patients and boost a small but growing medical- tourism sector here.
Revenue in the UAE's medical tourism market amounted to about US$1.7 billion (Dh6.24bn) in 2010, and the sector is projected to grow by about 15 per cent annually, according to the market research firm Business Monitor International.
Dubai Healthcare City is planning to create centres for oncology, genetic disorders and diabetes within five years in an effort to expand the medical-tourism segment of its business. About 15 per cent of more than 500,000 patients who sought care there last year were medical tourists, up from just 5 per cent of 231,000 patients in 2009.
Over the past year, RAK Hospital has been opening small offices in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Nigeria to find out more about the kinds of patients who are travelling abroad for treatment. It has also been putting together its own treatment packages that include airline tickets, visitor visas and negotiated rates at partner hotels near its base in Ras Al Khaimah.
"UAE has tremendous potential to come up as the next important medical-tourism destination for the people of this region," said Raza Siddiqui, the executive director of RAK Hospital.
While the medical tourism service started last year still makes up a small part of RAK Hospital's business, it now attracts one or two patients each day. Mr Siddiqui said the hospital plans to open offices in Russia, Pakistan, Kenya and Uganda to expand this business further.
At the same time, healthcare facilities in the UAE are working to keep local patients from travelling elsewhere for treatment - and boosting the medical-tourism sector of competing countries.
"One of the challenges that the UAE faces is stiff competition from popular medical destinations such as India and South East Asia that also provide competitive medical care," said Dr Ayesha Abdullah, the executive director of Dubai Healthcare City.
"Another challenge is many patients still prefer to get medical care outside the UAE."
Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, which is scheduled to open on Sowwah Island next year, is encouraging local residents to seek treatment there while it also tries to attract medical tourists. It plans to use certain amenities such as a climate-controlled walkway that connects to a nearby luxury hotel to entice patients to its facilities.
"The primary purpose of bringing the Cleveland Clinic model of care to Abu Dhabi is to provide those patients who might otherwise go abroad for treatment to places like Cleveland in Ohio with the highest international standards of health care in their home country [of the UAE]," said Dr Marc Harrison, the chief executive of Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.
"The hospital is designed primarily to cater to the needs of patients in Abu Dhabi and other emirates in the UAE, but we will, of course, welcome patients from the wider region."
A greater challenge for UAE hospitals may be accounting for healthcare policies in the home countries of potential medical tourists.
For instance, some jurisdictions may not approve drugs or treatment methods that are offered in the Emirates, while certain doctors may be reluctant to treat patients who have received elective care here or elsewhere.
"The issues in a universal healthcare system are different than in jurisdictions with a patient pay structure," said Dino Wilkinson, a partner based in Abu Dhabi at the law firm Norton Rose.
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