Medical tourists travelling in and out of Dubai are largely underprepared to deal with the financial implications of falling ill overseas, experts speaking at Dubai’s first health tourism forum have warned.
Less than 5 per cent of those travelling abroad for medical procedures are estimated to have appropriate protection in place, with most travel insurance not covering planned treatment should something go wrong.
The issue was discussed at the first Dubai International Health Tourism Forum on Wednesday, where experts warned the cost of emergency treatment abroad can run into hundreds of thousands of dirhams.
“Normal travel insurance doesn’t work at all for the self-paying medical tourist, and the needs are reasonably significant,” said Jonathan Cooper, director at Worldwide Insurance Solutions (Wiss) who added that health authorities have a responsibility to ensure all tourists are aware of their protection level before they travel.
“People are travelling around the world who are probably insured under normal travel insurance policies that won’t work for them should something go wrong.
“They too often associate travel insurance with a visa administrative process, rather than a financial assistance protection process.
“Most don’t have a bucket load of money to deal with a medical problem whilst they are travelling should something happen.”
The global travel insurance market is estimated to be worth more than US$20 billion, although there is no central mechanism of measurement.
It is designed to protect the needs of the normal tourist who is travelling overseas, and common cover includes emergency medical cover, cancellation, personal effects and personal liability with the largest risk being medical costs.
The new Musafir comprehensive health coverage will allow Emiratis to receive up to Dh500,000 of medical treatment should they be injured when travelling.
The cover is direct billing, meaning that UAE citizens would not have to come up with any cash for treatment and doctors or hospitals would directly bill the UAE insurer.
“Dubai is the leading destination for visitors in this region with about 15 million travellers a year so we need clear mechanisms to deal with that,” said Dr Haidar Al Yousuf, director of health funding at Dubai Health Authority.
“As Dubai moves towards a health tourism international hub, we have identified that health tourists require a different level of cover that is giving them adequate levels of security should something happen.
“Emergency cover for tourists is often not good enough to do the job.
“We need to ensure the Dubai experience for tourism or healthcare is complete, there shouldn’t be any gaps.
“Making sure the whole Dubai experience is a positive one is very important to us.”
According to the Association of British Insurers, 3,000 travellers are calling on their policy every week to fund emergency medical treatment whilst abroad, paying out Dh1.2 billion to help 150,000 people every year.
One claim for treating a stroke suffered by a traveller in America cost Dh3.9 million, whilst a claim for a jetski accident in Turkey saw medical bills top Dh642,000.
The cost of the average medical claim in the UK rose by 40 per cent to Dh6,700 between 2011 and 2016 and it is not uncommon for medical fees to reach hundreds of thousands of dirhams.
Most if not all travel insurance policies will exclude travelling for the purpose of obtaining medical treatment and pre-existing medical conditions.
Protection products designed for the medical tourist are rare, and still evolving with few insurer markets willing to take on the risk.
Dubai aims to attract 500,000 medical tourists a year to Dubai by 2020.
“One of things we are looking at for health tourism is how much trust there is in the system to enhance the industry,” said Dr Mohaymen Abdel Ghany, chief executive of Al Zahra Hospital, Dubai.
“It is important that we build trust in those wishing to seek health tourism in Dubai.
“If the health traveller knows in the unlikely case that something may go wrong there is coverage for these complications, that increases the adoption and level of trust.
“It is not just about building the infrastructure and services.”