Spiralling healthcare costs are expected to increase at three times the rate of inflation, a new financial report on regional trends has shown.
The cost of providing medical treatment in the Middle East and North Africa soared by 13.6 per cent last year with analysts expecting a further rise to 14 per cent this year.
As the expense of delivering health benefit programmes continues to climb, employers must look towards preventive programmes, new technology and wellness initiatives to avoid costly treatments.
It is the fifth year Mercer Marsh Benefits has issued a report on key medical trends, with respiratory conditions, circulatory disease and endocrine illnesses the top three health risk factors pushing up bills.
“Although there are clear challenges facing us, the region is making significant investment into tackling some of the issues raised in this report,” said Julio Garcia, Mercer Marsh Benefits leader for Middle East and Africa.
“This is being done specifically by encouraging employees to take greater personal responsibility for their own well-being through more visible support for preventive care.”
Type two diabetes remains a significant concern across the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia having the highest prevalence of the condition at 31.6 per cent of the population, followed by Oman (29 per cent), Kuwait (25.4 per cent) and Bahrain (25 per cent).
In the UAE, 25 per cent of the population is living with diabetes, placing considerable strain on health care budgets.
“These diseases are not unique to the Gulf,” said Simon Penney, Middle East trade commissioner for the UK Government.
“Non-communicable diseases are increasingly responsible for serious health and economic burdens to governments around the world.
“Because treatment is expensive, screening and prevention are key to tackling this epidemic and reducing costs.
“The National Health Service has invested heavily in technology and increased its focus on disease screening and prevention.
“These efforts have helped drive the steady reduction in deaths in the UK associated with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer over the past three decades.”
A spike in medical costs across the region last year was blamed on three main factors.
An overprescribing of low-value health tests and procedures, high cost pharmaceuticals and patients spending longer than necessary in hospital for treatment were cited in the financial report.
Doctors have been criticised by health insurers for sending patients home with bags of unnecessary drugs, many of which are expensive branded medication.
A recent report by British medical firm, Medbelle, ranked the UAE alongside Germany and the US as the top three most expensive countries to buy drugs in a study of 50 nations.
Researchers found extreme price variations worldwide for medicines to treat heart disease, blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, anxiety disorders and erectile dysfunction.
Despite increasing costs, analysts said changes to the way people access care, such as via virtual health consultancies and telemedicine, are being adopted across the region.
The Mercer Marsh Benefits report surveyed 204 international insurers from January to March and found 88 per cent of those asked were either considering or already support this new technology, compared with 78 per cent worldwide.
Technology could play a wider role in reducing healthcare costs globally by cutting-out unnecessary tests and eliminating expensive errors.
Last year, medical negligence in England cost the National Health Service £2.3 (Dh11.05 bn) billion in compensation and legal costs.
Precision robotic surgery and computer programmes to eliminate errors from misread scan results could dramatically reduce those costs in the future.
“A compendium of information can be looked at by a machine more effectively than a human,” said Dr Jacques Kobersy, chairman of emergency medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.
“Decisions can be made on how previous patients have responded in similar situations to improve care.
“Reducing healthcare costs in emergency medicine is about preventing unnecessary return visits to the hospital.
“We can do that by increasing the efficiency of our diagnosis process.”