Medical tourism prescribed for Dubai

Dubai should look beyond its shopping malls and hotels and encourage tourists to have a check-up while visiting the emirate.

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The medical industry in Dubai should do more to promote its healthcare facilities to boost tourism, having invested millions of dirhams to create the world's first free zone for medical care, an international medical industry association says. Healthcare City in Dubai has about 80 clinics and the emirate hosts thousands of medical tourists each year, although there are no official data. "Perception of the destination is very good over here," said Dr Prem Jagyasi, the chief executive of the medical services company ExHealth in Dubai Healthcare City and the chief strategic officer of the Medical Tourism Association. "You want to go to a destination which is familiar to you and has a strong brand." A second phase of the healthcare complex is under construction, and will include nutrition centres, spas, resorts and sport medicine centres. Still, despite those advantages, there are challenges to be overcome for medical tourism to grow.A survey conducted for The National by the international research firm YouGov revealed a lack of confidence in the UAE's health system among its residents, with about 70 per cent of them saying they would seek treatment abroad if they fell seriously ill, while 57 per cent of Emiratis said they would go abroad for treatment. Meanwhile, less than a third of respondents said they thought the UAE was well equipped to tap the medical tourism market. To counter such perceptions, Dubai would benefit from establishing a medical tourism board, which could examine legal and ethical issues, Dr Jagyasi said. He also pointed out that while many of the emirate's medical facilities, such as its dialysis treatments, should be reserved for nationals and residents, the emirate does have the capacity to offer cosmetic surgery and dental care to tourists, he said. "You can extend tourists' spending capacity," he said. "Let's say if they're spending Dh10,000 (US$2,700) per visit and now they spend Dh1,000 extra on medical services - let it be a dental check-up, let it be a medical check-up - you're talking of millions of dirhams of business." The association wants Dubai to put its marketing prowess to work for the emirate's healthcare providers. "Anyone coming over here can enjoy the tourism attractions and the hospitality," Dr Jagyasi said. The worldwide medical tourism industry is worth about US$60 billion, the association said. India and Thailand, among other nations, have established themselves as destinations where visitors can be promptly treated at relatively low cost in accredited hospitals. Dubai, which is already a popular destination with travellers and has a number of internationally accredited clinics, could easily take a greater share of this business, he said. Last year, Dubai drew about 7.5 million tourists, according to the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM). The cost of many treatments can be around 50 per cent cheaper in some clinics in Dubai compared to ones in the US, Dr Jagyasi said. Knee replacement surgery, for example, costs about $50,000 in the US, compared to about $20,000 in Dubai. Also, patients often prefer the anonymity that comes with going abroad for treatment. "You want to go out of the country to get your nose done, your body done, because you don't want your family to see the changes on a daily basis," he said. In a report released in July last year, the DTCM predicted a bright outlook for the healthcare industry in the UAE. "[Dubai] has pioneered the expansion of its medical tourism industry in line with plans to diversify its economy as outlined in the Strategic Plan 2015," the report said.