Dr Lamees Al Harbi, an Emirati resident at Munich’s University Eye Hospital.
Dr Lamees Al Harbi, an Emirati resident at Munich’s University Eye Hospital.

Emirati expats: Living abroad to better serve those at home

Dr Lamees Al Harbi is one of the building blocks for the UAE's future healthcare system. She is resident at a major teaching hospital in Munich, and holds dear the ambition to return home and treat her countrymen.

The sky is drizzling rain and the temperature a less than balmy 12°C as Dr Lamees Al Harbi sits down in the garden of Munich's University Eye Hospital.

"I love their weather," the Emirati resident doctor confesses. "The best weather of the year has just started."

Back home the thermometer is in the 30s, but Dr Al Harbi is happy to be in Germany. After five years, she is almost as fluent in her adopted tongue as she is in her native Arabic.

"The Germans wouldn't be able to accept and take you into the fullest if you don't know their language," she says. "They need to see your determination, along with a knowledge of their language.

"Only then will they give you give you all they have, and all you need to learn and know."

And Dr Al Harbi has certainly learnt a lot at the third biggest eye hospital in Europe.

Her fluency in both languages has proved as useful as her medical skills, with a growing number of her compatriots seeking treatment in Germany.

For Emirati patients, Dr Al Harbi is a reassuring connection to home. For her part, she is aware of the difficulties and frustrations of seeking treatment thousands of miles from the UAE.

One of the biggest problems, she says, is the waiting times between appointments for treatment.

"Think about it, for patients sent by the Government, or on their own, there are a lot of expenses they are paying for - accommodation, transportation and meals - just to wait a week or two between appointments or to the day of the operation," Dr Al Harbi says.

Her solution was to start a clinic for Emiratis that would arrange all of the appointments with the Embassy and the hospital.

Entering the clinic, Dr Al Harbi opens the appointment book listing her Emirati patients.

"We arrange things in a such a way that appointments can be arranged just before surgery, if needed."

This means that in summer, the clinic can see at least 18 adult patients a day, as well as children.

Her story begins with a higher education scholarship from the UAE Government. She spent seven years studying for her medical qualification in Bucharest, where she also mastered Romanian.

Later Dr Al Harbi returned to the Emirates, spending time between the Al Jimi and Tawam Hospitals in Al Ain, where she eventually decided to specialise in ophthalmology and moved to Germany for more training.

"I know and love everything about eyes," she says. "It is my life now. So delicate and so deep."

The decision to train abroad was, she says, "a very successful one. And of course I plan to come back once I finish everything and use it to cure my people back home".

Dr Al Harbi recognises that it is important for the UAE to train its own citizens as doctors: "Every nation needs doctors from its own children."

With the Government investing so much money in health care, bringing the latest medical technology to the UAE, training Emiratis as doctors is one way of ensuring funds are spent wisely, she says.

"With so many different nationalities now working as doctors in the Emirates, it can sometimes be purely a business to make money," Dr Al Harbi says.

Training for the medical profession is not easy, she admits, especially in a foreign country, but "we are the sons of our beloved Emirates, and as we serve when we are back home, we try to serve wherever we go.

"And I would say to anyone who has ambition that just as I was able to do it here in Germany, you can do it anywhere."

One of the first tasks was to acquire a working knowledge of Germany, something that took her seven months.

She continues to study at the Goethe Institute, and says learning Romanian helped.

"After you know one language with a Latin origin, the rest gets easier," Dr Al Harbi says. "Medicine is a Latin language."

She also noticed the cultural difference between the two European nations.

"The Romanian people are very friendly, they care about you and about your personal issues. Their blood is hot, it feels more like us Arabs.

"The Germans are different. They are very practical and disciplined and they live by the rules. There are no bribes or anything like that."

She pauses: "I like in Germans how they judge you by the value of your mind, not your money. And they are clear with you, no hidden plans. They don't like to much talk - they would rather see action.

"In the beginning they keep a distance, but once they see that you are dedicated, the doors are open for you."

There are 51 Emirati students and physicians in Germany, says Mohamed Salem Al Falahi the second secretary and head of the department of student affairs at the UAE Embassy in Berlin, which supervises them.

"Forty-eight of them are physicians who are doing their specialist training [residency] in German hospitals to become specialists in a variety of medical fields," says Mr Al Falahi.

"The most required areas of specialities among our UAE physicians are paediatrics, plastic surgery, cardiac surgery, ophthalmology, otolaryngology, orthopaedics and bone surgery, radiology, dermatology, oral surgery and orthodontics, as well as general and forensic medicine.

"The three other scholarship holders study in the fields of general engineering, environmental engineering and neurobiology."

Mr Al Falahi says the major scholarship sponsors for students in Germany are the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, the Abu Dhabi Education Council and Dubai Police.

"The scholarships do not only include a monthly salary but also cover all tuition fees and health insurance costs for the students and their accompanying family members," he says.

He says the language barrier is a big hurdle for new scholarship holders to overcome.

"Despite the fact that they attend German language courses, a real use of the German language is only possible by the interaction with Germans and applying their knowledge they have gained so far," Mr Al Falahi says.

"We encourage our students to make use of the German language regularly and even meet German friends as this will improve their language skills enormously."

The difficulties faced by those studying so far away from home will reap rewards for the country, Dr Al Harbi says.

For the UAE to have the best health service, it needs to have doctors from its own people, who live among those they are treating and know their medical histories.

Dr Al Harbi illustrates her point with an Arabic saying: "There is no one who will care for you like one of your family."

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