Prominent UAE scientist urges greater investment in preventive health care

Untapped opportunities include genetic counselling, sleep and water research, medical education and "epigenetics", says Dr Maryam Matar

FILE: A member of the medical staff secures his face mask whilst working inside an operating theater at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, part of the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, in Birmingham, U.K., on Monday, Feb. 20, 2017. As the U.K. government proposes spending 160 million pounds ($207 million) to support medical research and health care we select our best archive images on health. Photographer: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg
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Private investors are missing an opportunity to invest in long-term preventive health care in the UAE – a critical area as the country faces rising rates of "lifestyle" illness such as diabetes, according to the prominent scientist and founder of the UAE Genetic Diseases Association, Dr Maryam Matar.

“Investors focus on curative measures, which is essential, but there is a huge lack of investment in prevention. This is what we are missing from investors,” Dr Matar said.

“Prevention is one of those areas where investors do not get income so quickly, not because it’s high-risk but because it takes patience. You are looking at solutions that could take 15 years [to bear results], so it needs capital from true investors willing to make smart investments and stay in them for the long term.”

Demand for healthcare provision in the Middle East and North Africa is rising due to a rapidly expanding population. The region is forecast to need 470,000 additional hospital beds in the next five years to keep up with minimum per capita requirements set by the OECD, according to the consultancy JLL – equating to 3,130 new hospitals over the same period.

This gap in service provision has prompted policymakers to explore preventive, rather than curative, strategies to improve the overall health of populations and reduce the pressure on infrastructure.

A report from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) this year claimed the GCC is in the “grip of a healthcare crisis” brought about by an increasingly sedentary lifestyle and a diet laden with sugar, leading to a rise in chronic diseases.


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“In the case of many of these non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – particularly obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer – early diagnosis and preventive health care can have a large positive impact, either preventing diseases from occurring or effectively managing them once they have developed, to produce better patient outcomes and quality of life,” the report said.

Healthcare expenditure in the GCC for diabetes is forecast to increase to US$21.8 billion by 2040, from $12.8bn in 2015, according to a separate report by the EIU and EY in May, demonstrating the scale of investment required.

Speaking at a healthcare symposium in Dubai, Dr Matar said there was a worrying lack of investment in strategies to improve overall health.

Particular untapped opportunities include the establishment of sleep clinics (“there is no single comprehensive sleep clinic in the region”, she said), provision of high-quality water and inclusion of gyms and fitness services within primary healthcare centres.

She also called for investment to improve medical education and increase the supply of "genetic counsellors" to support people with inherited genetic conditions.

“We have only one licensed genetic counsellor in Dubai, can you imagine?” the doctor told the symposium.

“The whole industry is booming with laboratories providing genetic screening, but there is no ethical protocol requiring you to provide your patient with proper genetic counselling that helps them decide what to do with this information.”

The emerging field of "epigenetics", which explores the relationship between genetic make-up and external environmental factors, is another untapped opportunity.  “Previously, we thought we were born with this bunch of DNA, and there was nothing we could do about it, but now we realise we can control those nasty genes that increase our risk for specific illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s and obesity,” Dr Matar said.

“Right now, if I were an investor, I would focus on ways that an individual could switch off all those genes. These are the types of investments we need and, unfortunately, there is no single investment company here working on any of that.”

She urged individuals and companies to align their investment strategies with the preventive-orientated objectives of the UAE Government to achieve better outcomes in the long term.