Changes to health insurance are urgently needed to help cancer patients deal with the financial burden many face when they are unable to work due to ill health.
Although more expensive packages cover the cost of some cancer treatments and screenings, basic-package health insurance falls well short of paying for all related costs.
However, discussions are under way that could see that change, in a move that would be widely welcomed by cancer charities, which often have to fill in the funding gaps by offering support to sufferers.
Those behind the growing network of national support groups also want a federal UAE cancer registry for all government and private hospitals, to help track changing trends and pinpoint areas in need of improvement.
Low-paid workers with only the very basic health insurance are most vulnerable to the financial impact of cancer, said Nora Al Suwaidi, director general of Cancer Patient Care Society - Rahma.
“The cost of medicines and cancer care is high and, in some cases, insurance companies fall short,” she said.
“We have patients in labour camps, their family members and widows who can't even afford the ride to the hospital, let alone the high cost of treatment.
“Palliative care centres are also limited in the UAE. This requirement should be addressed by both government and private hospitals.”
Ms Al Suwaidi would like to see Dubai Health Authority, Health Authority Abu Dhabi and the Ministry of Health and Prevention provide clear guidance and some mandatory services to cancer patients post-diagnosis, and for terminally ill cancer patients.
Rahma offers financial assistance to patients who cannot afford treatment and also covers the costs of a second opinion on the diagnosis. In addition, it provides support through focus groups, oncology massages and psychological help through counselling.
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The charity helps bone-marrow transplant patients in the UAE who may need to go overseas to India or Turkey for treatment by funding travel costs where it can.
Although the UAE is not among the 50 worst cancer countries, according to the World Health Organisation, statistics show about 12 new cases are reported daily.
It is the third-leading cause of death in the UAE after cardiovascular disease and diabetes and it is recognised that a large number of cancer deaths could be prevented by modifying or avoiding key risk factors.
Early detection, accurate diagnosis, effective treatment and palliative care should help increase cancer survival rates and reduce suffering.
Al Jalila Foundation, through its A’awen programme, provides support, treatment and medical care to UAE patients who are unable to afford quality treatment.
Since its inception in 2013, Al Jalila Foundation has supported more than 270 patients, including 62 children from 29 countries with a number of chronic illnesses and life-threatening conditions.
“The struggle many patients face is not only emotional but financial, as the required treatment can be very expensive and often patients’ medical insurance is insufficient,” said Dr Abdulkareem Sultan Al Olama, CEO of Al Jalila Foundation.
“Our A’awen programme offers hope and healing to patients in need of quality medical care.”
The top five cancers in Abu Dhabi in 2014 were: breast, colorectal, thyroid, leukaemia and cervical.
Data accuracy is viewed as crucial in providing a meaningful cancer control plan to patients, and to help reduce its prevalence in the country.
Cancer experts have said a national registry would help authorities understand which types of cancers are becoming more common. This, in turn, will help health authorities develop appropriate measures to offer patients the best possible support.
Most private hospitals are currently excluded from the existing UAE cancer registry.
“Data-keeping is essential via registry and it’s an international norm,” Ms Al Al Suwaidi said.
“Having the data will help track different forms of the cancers and help understand which kind of cancer is prevalent in the UAE population.
“These measures will prolong the life of cancer patients.”