Dubai’s medical tourism drive adds new string to its bow

Previously, health tourism was focused on curative procedures but, today, clinics are seeing a growth in those coming to seek preventative treatments.

DUBAI // Dubai is developing as a destination for preventive healthcare, with growing numbers of tourists travelling to the city from the region for the likes of DNA screening and food intolerance testing.

Previously, health tourism ­focused on curative procedures such as hip replacement, gastric band surgery and cosmetic procedures. Today, more patients are coming to seek preventive treatments, such as health screenings and check-ups, and holistic treatments.

Dr Nasim Ashraf began his medical career nearly four decades ago as a certified internal medicine specialist in the US. However, in recent years, he has made a shift to integrative medicine and, seeing the growth in demand in the UAE, he moved.

“My mission was to move from being a pill-prescribing doctor to someone who works with the individual to encourage them to a better lifestyle and a more balanced way of creating wellbeing,” he said.

Dubai, as a “world-class destination” with “high-end tourists” he said, was perfect for such tourism, and earlier this year the emirate launched the world’s first medical tourism portal where patients can book procedures online. In the first half of last year, health tourism alone generated Dh1 billion.

“Wellness tourism isn’t the hip operation but going for the check-ups, the stop-smoking programmes,” Dr Ashraf said, adding that about 10 per cent of his patients were from abroad, mostly within the GCC.

“The region is very young and, in terms of the demographics, people want to adopt a healthy lifestyle. Sometimes we have whole families come to get checked. They may bring their child for something like autism or hyperactivity disorder but the whole family gets checks.”

For three years, the DNA Centre for Integrative Health and Wellness, which he runs, was based in Abu Dhabi, but in April it moved to Dubai’s Talise Spa, in the Madinat Jumeirah resort complex, to have closer access to tourists.

So far, the most popular ­service people visit the centre for is DNA screening, which can show up the likelihood of conditions such as cancer and Alzheimer’s, general health checks and lifestyle planning.

“We see a lot of people with chronic conditions, food intolerances, chronic fatigue, something I saw more of here than in the US,” Dr Ashraf said.

Dr Maria Ridao Alonso, medical director at Dubai Herbal Treatment Centre, said the numbers of those travelling for wellness treatments and preventive care were increasing so much that, in the past year, the centre had begun to keep a count of those coming in from abroad.

The majority of non-residents come from the GCC.

“The GCC doesn’t have the equivalent treatments in other countries,” Dr Alonso said, adding there were also patients from developing economies such as Pakistan and Kazakhstan.

There was, however, a growing number of patients coming from Europe, mostly people visiting families in Dubai and using their time here for self care. They were often elderly parents of residents.

“While they’re here over four or six weeks, they can do a course of treatments such as acupuncture and herbal treatments,” Dr Alonso said. “Because they’re here a certain time, it makes sense and they can dedicate this time to themselves and their health without their usual routine to restrict them.”

Others visiting Dubai came for holistic treatments and were often patients with chronic conditions where normal medicine cannot offer much relief, such as insomnia, chronic pains, and issues such as food intolerance and digestive conditions.

Published: June 17, 2016 04:00 AM


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