Al Maktoum airport megaproject to boost Dubai's growing medical tourism sector

Patients stuck on long waiting lists in other countries could turn to the emirate for health care

Analysts expect Dubai to creep up the medical tourism rankings after the completion of the new airport terminal. The National
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The booming medical tourism market in Dubai is set for lift-off as the new Dh128 billion Al Maktoum International Airport project widens the gateway into the emirate’s healthcare services.

Construction on the new passenger terminal in Dubai South is already under way, with operations at the extended Dubai International Airport due to switch to the mega-hub within a decade.

A considerable impact on infrastructure is expected, with huge demand for property, schools and hospitals.

Dubai ranks sixth on the globally recognised Medical Tourism Index (MTI), according to three key metrics of destination and environment, medical tourism industry and quality of facilities and services.

Canada tops the MTI list, followed by Singapore, Japan, Spain and the UK.

Analysts expect Dubai to creep up the rankings after the completion of the new terminal, with the projected capacity to welcome some 150 million passengers a year.

“One of the key factors enabling Dubai to become a top medical tourism hub is its strategic location and its connectivity with the rest of the world,” said Mansoor Ahmed, director for healthcare, education and public private partnerships at Colliers International.

“It is well positioned as a medical tourism hub thanks to exemplary government support, skilled healthcare professionals and state of the art healthcare.

“Most of the GCC countries are focusing on making the healthcare industry a key sector for economic diversification.

“The aim is not only to make the region a leading global medical tourism hub, but also reduce outbound medical tourism.”

Dh1 billion health spend

In 2022, Dubai received about 674,000 medical tourists who spent almost Dh1 billion while in the UAE, according to Dubai Health Authority.

Strategic location is critical to growth, with a third of the world’s population and around 11 per cent of global GDP within four hours of Dubai, and two thirds of the planet living within an eight-hour flight of the UAE.

“During the pandemic, medical tourists came to Dubai for the first time and, after experiencing high-quality services and a great hospitality environment, went on to become regular customers,” said Mr Ahmed.

“Those requiring critical care for issues such as cancer and other life-threatening conditions that could not wait for travel restrictions to lift, or for waiting lists to ease, were also attracted to Dubai.

“Rapid increase in healthcare costs in western countries and the lack or limitation of insurance coverage for certain procedures has resulted in patients travelling to other countries to seek medical treatments.

“Similarly, long waiting time for life-threatening conditions in systems like the UK’s NHS, such as oncology, can result in irreversible loss.”

Dubai, is positioning itself as a major player in the global medical tourism market, which is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 22 per cent over the next seven years, surpassing $95 billion.

Medical tourism generated an estimated $270 million in revenue in 2022, a 25 per cent increase from 2021.

Dubai South is expected to accommodate more than a million residents and workers once fully developed, a huge increase from the current population of around 25,000.

Hospital bed demand

The World Health Organisation recommends 2.5 hospital beds per 1,000 population, which equates to projected demand for an extra 2,500 hospital beds.

Rapid population growth is likely to also drive up demand for healthcare services in the area, said Kirsty Graham, chief operating officer at Canadian Specialist Hospital, Dubai.

“Dubai will need to invest heavily in expanding healthcare infrastructure and services in Dubai South,” said Ms Graham.

“This could include building new hospitals, clinics, and medical facilities equipped with the latest technologies like telemedicine, AI-powered diagnostics, and robotic surgery to offer unique services to both residents and medical tourists.

“This may increase competition amongst the existing healthcare providers to upgrade their services and facilities to remain competitive.

“It also serves as an opportunity for existing healthcare providers to expand their footprint to expand operations to Dubai South and leverage their knowledge of the region and the insurance system, putting them at an advantage [over] new providers entering the market.”

In 2022, health authority figures show, 39 per cent of the medical tourists who came to Dubai were from Asian countries, 22 per cent from Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States and 21 per cent from Arab and Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries.

The three specialities that drew the highest number of medical tourists were dermatology (31 per cent) dentistry (24 per cent) and gynaecology (18 per cent).

Other fields include orthopaedics, plastic surgery, ophthalmology, fertility treatments, hospitalisation and recovery.

“Attracting top healthcare talent will be a priority to staff any new facilities,” said Ms Graham.

“Dubai can leverage its reputation as a global hub for innovation to recruit skilled medical professionals from around the world.

“However, the global shortage of skilled healthcare workers needs to be considered in the talent acquisition plan of any healthcare provider expanding into Dubai South.”

Dubai Health Experience (DXH) is a government-led initiative connecting healthcare providers to medical tourists.

Under the programme, visitors can obtain a medical tourism visa for long-term treatments in Dubai in facilities where 40,000 healthcare professionals work, from 110 nationalities.

Medical tourism packages

Custom-made comprehensive tourism packages can include costs of treatment, visas, hotel stays and recreational activities for accompanying family members.

Bespoke packages are often tailor-made in collaboration with hospitals, airlines, hotels, travel agents and health authorities.

Taher Shams, managing director of the Zulekha Healthcare Group, said the expansion of Al Maktoum International Airport held further potential to grow Dubai’s burgeoning medical tourism sector.

“The UAE's focus on futuristic development, exemplified by the expansion of Al Maktoum International Airport, aligns well with our efforts to collaborate with Dubai Medical Tourism authorities,” he said.

“This partnership not only enhances the nation's reputation as a wellness destination but also contributes significantly to its economic growth.

“By offering a range of specialised services such as dialysis, cardiac, orthopaedic, and oncology surgeries, as well as cosmetic treatments and general health checks, we are catering to the diverse healthcare needs of patients from various countries.

“This not only enhances the quality of care available in the UAE but also strengthens its position as a hub for regional medical tourism.”

Updated: May 01, 2024, 3:14 AM