Regional health care needs reality check

Challenges that face system must be surmounted to create greater efficiency

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While the Gulf presents one of the most robust business opportunities for healthcare operators in the world, there are many challenges impeding the sector's growth, say executives from some of the region's leading health companies. Complex licensing processes, a poorly informed patient base and "Tower of Babel" communication among insurers, providers and patients all make the region's healthcare system more inefficient than it should be, the executives say.

"We have 13 separate businesses in the UAE and each has multiple licensing requirements," said Mark Adams, the chief executive of Gulf Healthcare International in Dubai. "Even bringing in individuals to come in and work, there's an inability to exchange staff among the 13. We can't use temporary labour." Such a rigid process results in unnecessary costs, Mr Adams added. Gulf Healthcare, which is owned by the Kuwaiti private equity firm Global Capital Management, has invested about US$100 million (Dh367.2m) in 30 medical businesses throughout the GCC.

One, Medsol, operates 10 laboratories in Dubai that conduct cholesterol checks, swine flu tests and MRI scans, among other procedures. The remarks by Mr Adams came at a panel discussion on overcoming challenges to upgrade healthcare infrastructure at the two-day InnovHealth 2010 conference in Abu Dhabi, which ended on Monday. The forum brought together healthcare providers, company executives and businesses that sell products and services to hospitals, clinics and pharmacies.

The GCC healthcare sector was estimated to be valued at between $15 billion and $18bn last year and expected to grow five-fold by 2025. One common obstacles to delivering quality care is also one of the simplest to solve: facilities should be tailored to the patients they serve, said Dr Azad Moopen, who runs the $150m DM Group in Dubai. Healthcare facilities should be designed with the Gulf culture in mind, which means gender-segregated waiting and consultation rooms, and separate treatment areas, Dr Moopen said.

But the panellists praised recent efforts by Abu Dhabi to build up its network of hospitals and clinics, and its health insurance programme. Abu Dhabi's "universal health plan is as good as anything I've seen in the world but other parts of the GCC are significantly different", Mr Adams said. "You are fighting to create a dialogue." The capital has sponsored an expansion of its system in recent years. Mubadala Healthcare, a division of the Government's strategic investment arm Mubadala Development, opened the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre in 2006.

In the same year it established the Abu Dhabi Knee and Sports Medicine Centre, as knee injuries are one of the most common musculoskeletal problems in the region. The Cleveland Clinic, another partnership with Mubadala, is scheduled to open in 2012. The Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi is a different entity to the operation it manages at Sheikh Khalifa Medical Centre. While both projects have the same partner, the services offered at each will be distinct, said Amanda Fallon, a Mubadala spokeswoman.

"We have seen some progress that shows promising signs of a great future in health care in Abu Dhabi," said Suhail al Ansari, the associate director of Mubadala Healthcare. "We've had a lot of investment in the private sector yet it is still not enough." Dr Moopen said the lack of co-ordination among parties that delivered and received care and the insurers amounted to a "Tower of Babel" Some facilities entered patient information by hand, while others used computer systems that are unable to communicate with to each other, he said.

"We need to adopt a unified electronic claim and approval process [for insurers]," Dr Moopen said.