Dubai on healthcare bandwagon as holidaymakers mix treatment with luxury

Emirate aims to take on India and Thailand with high-quality services in a holiday setting.
American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery Hospital in Dubai. Courtesy AACSH
American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery Hospital in Dubai. Courtesy AACSH

Already one of world’s 10 most visited cities, Dubai is counting on more people to mix their holidays with high-end treatments for a luxurious form of medical tourism, rivaling Thailand and India. Now, it is trying to attract 500,000 such visitors, adding Dh2.6 billion to its economy by 2020, according to a Dubai Health Authority plan announced this year.

Clinics like the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery Hospital are helping. The marble-floored lobby is adorned with sculptures of Greek gods and gold-enamelled vases. Saudis sit beside Europeans on a purple velvet couch under a matching chandelier as they wait for nose jobs or breast implants. A private elevator carries celebrities and Arab royalty to a VIP suite as Rolls-Royces and Ferraris line the car park outside.

“The presentation and the aura are just as important as the quality of care we provide,” said Michael Stroud, former chief executive of the hospital, the largest of its kind in the Gulf region. “We are capitalising on Dubai’s lustre.”

For centuries, people have traveled to hot springs and seaside resorts in search of better health. In the 1990s and early 2000s, as rising global trade and tourism converged with the ballooning costs for medical care in developed countries, emerging markets such as India and Thailand set out to recruit patients by providing cheaper care at internationally accredited hospitals. India’s medical tourism industry will reach US$6bn by 2018, according to the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Among the challenges Dubai may face as it seeks to capture a share of an industry worth more than $30bn, is that it’s too expensive to compete on cost with destinations like India, and isn’t highly regarded enough to compete on quality with the US and Europe, according to Josef Woodman, the chief executive of Patients Beyond Borders, which publishes books on medical tourism. What the city does have is a reputation for luxury, and it’s using that to carve out a niche in the medical tourism market.

“Tourists already come to Dubai for shopping, sightseeing and luxury,” said Raja Easa Al Gurg, the deputy chairperson of the board of directors at Dubai Healthcare City, a sprawling 4 million square-foot healthcare zone that is home to two hospitals, and 120 outpatient medical centres and diagnostic laboratories.

“We need to scale up our healthcare industry anyway, as millions of people flood our city and Dubai becomes a major financial hub.”

Such efforts over the past decade have met setbacks and disappointments. The transformation of the local medical system came to a halt in 2009 after the financial crisis froze investments, Harvard University and the Mayo Clinic, who had been brought in to help upgrade Dubai’s medical system, quietly packed up and left the healthcare zone.

In 2011, a new CEO was appointed and a new strategy was laid out at Dubai Healthcare City, including a renewed effort to boost medical tourism, with a focus on elective surgeries such as aesthetic procedures.

The approach spurned what had been an emphasis on real estate leases and instead focused on establishing centres of excellence in areas such as cardiology and oncology.

“It started as a real estate venture,” said Mr Woodman. “Building came up and there were lease agreements. What they didn’t have was a training infrastructure for doctors. Expertise just doesn’t spring up out of the desert. It takes generations.”

Today, a gleaming new building at the heart of the healthcare zone, the Mohammed bin Rashid Academic Medical Center, bears the name of Dubai’s Ruler. During a tour of the area’s education and research arm, state-of-the-art training facilities, classrooms and a library were on display, although few people were seen wandering the building halls.

The Government is now focusing on branding Dubai as a healthcare hub through advertisements as well as partnerships with medical tourism facilitators, who will package deals for visitors, said Laila Al Jassmi, who until last year headed the Dubai Health Authority’s health policy and strategy sector.

Clinics such as the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery Hospital have promoted their services directly to residents of eastern European and Gulf countries, the main markets Dubai is seeking to target.

“Dubai is an eight-hour flying time from two-thirds of the world’s population and has earned a growing reputation as a leading global gateway and hub for trade, logistics and tourism,” Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who chairs the boards of some of Dubai’s biggest companies, said in a Dubai Healthcare City commercial aired on CNN this year. “Now we are focused on earning a reputation for excellence in health care.”

Dubai Healthcare City representatives say its focus on elective surgeries and a plan to build a wellness centre will create a niche market. It’s still working to improve its care in areas such as oncology and cardiology to keep locals from going abroad for more complicated procedures.

Demand for such services is rising with the rate of obesity among a population with a reputation for craving fast food and giving short shrift to exercise.

“With any new country, you basically build up your health system,” said Amer Ahmad Sharif, the managing director of the education division at Dubai Healthcare City. “No matter what you do, there will be some specialised types of care that you will not be able to cater for at a certain volume.”

While Dubai introduced universal health care this year, large gaps exist between state-provided health care and private care, according to Alpen Capital, an investment bank focused in the Arabian Gulf and Asia. More than 30 per cent of the population still prefers going abroad for care, a legacy of a time when the health-care industry was practically non-existent.

“I know stories of patients going abroad for infertility treatment for a full year,” said David Hadley, the chief executive at Mediclinic Middle East, Dubai’s largest private health-care company with two hospitals and eight clinics. “The infertility centres are fantastic here, but there are still misperceptions.”

Dubai’s economy is recovering and growth may reach 4.7 per cent this year, the fastest pace since 2007, according to Mohamed Lahouel, chief economist for the Dubai Department of Economic Development. That has led foreign healthcare institutions to plant their seeds back in the UAE.

Moorfields Eye Hospital, the 209-year-old London clinic, opened its first branch in Dubai in 2006 and has plans for another branch in Abu Dhabi.

The hospital, which gets as many as 15 per cent of its patients from abroad, is betting that wealthy Gulf residents, who for decades have flocked to Europe and the US for medical treatment, will increasingly stay in the region for medical care, said Mariano Gonzalez, the managing director of the Moorfields UAE division.

“If we can provide the same quality of service in the UAE as we provide in London, all of a sudden you have Saudis that no longer need to fly all the way to London for care,” said Mr Gonzalez. “It’s a slow process, but it is happening.”

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Published: September 28, 2014 04:00 AM


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