The UAE is on the way to achieving global health hub status

The country's booming medical tourism sector is just one symptom of a wider phenomenon

The UAE is one of the world's fastest-growing medical tourism destinations. Khushnum Bhandari / The National
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Fifteen years ago, most UAE residents would rather have gone abroad for medical treatment if they fell seriously ill, as a 2009 survey run by YouGov for The National reported. GCC countries have long made travel overseas for medical reasons available to their citizens in cases where comparable treatment could not be found at home.

While subsidised medical travel remains available for citizens who need it, times have changed. Today, the world increasingly comes to the UAE for its health care, and that includes visitors from elsewhere in the GCC and the rest of the Middle East. The country is one of the fastest-growing markets for medical tourism, with one travel operator telling The National that UAE bookings in the sector have doubled in the past year. Globally, the industry is worth nearly $32 billion, and the UAE’s participation in the medical tourism economy includes not only serious treatments like cancer therapy or bariatric surgery, but general wellness, too. One report estimates that wellness tourists spent $5.4 billion in the Emirates in 2022.

The country has risen as a healthcare hub in the past decade, buoyed by the opening of world-class hospitals and increased investment in people and infrastructure. The 2024 federal budget allocates 8 per cent of its total, or Dh5.2 billion ($1.4 billion), for health care, up Dh800 million ($220 million) from five years ago.

There is plenty of demand. Consumer spending on health care in the UAE outpaces counterparts in the GCC, and it is expected to reach $30.7 billion by 2027.

It isn’t just the patients who come. Overseas healthcare providers have chosen to set up shop, too. Abu Dhabi is home to a leading hospital that is an extension of the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic, which was named one of the top 50 hospitals in the world this year, in addition to high-quality hospitals across the UAE.

While there is opportunity in medical tourism, the overriding goal is – as it ought to be – a higher-quality healthcare system for those who call the UAE home. In a message on World Health Day this week, President Sheikh Mohamed spoke of the importance of strengthening the country’s health system as a matter of not only well-being, but “dignity” for UAE residents.

While there is opportunity in medical tourism, the goal is a higher-quality system for those who call the UAE home

The Emirates’ investment in health care, he said, extends beyond the country itself, to include its global partnerships, co-operation, research and investment in areas like disease eradication and prevention and humanitarian relief. Since 2010, the UAE has invested more than a quarter of a billion dollars in the eradication of tropical diseases. In recent years, it has also been a regional leader in humanitarian health care, setting up field hospitals in Gaza and Egypt and evacuating Palestinians and Afghans to the Emirates for life-saving treatment.

At home, policy reform has been a critical to ensuring progress. This year, a landmark ruling introduced a nationwide health insurance mandate, requiring employers in all seven emirates to pay for their staff’s health care. Previously, this requirement only applied in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Health care requires consistent investment and development, which the country has committed to. For the UAE to become a world health leader, not only in medical tourism but in the medical sector generally, continued investment will be required in several areas, such as investing in patient-support services, language interpretation, accreditation and making the costliest services accessible to all patients who need them. With the nationwide mandate coming into effect next year, more people than ever will have access to the UAE’s healthcare system. For regulators and providers alike, that means plenty of new challenges to overcome, but also plenty of opportunity.

Published: April 11, 2024, 3:00 AM