Ministry courts medical tourists

With hospitals around the country applying for international accreditation, the UAE could become a hub for medical tourism.

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ABU DHABI // With hospitals around the country applying for international accreditation, it will not be long before the UAE is a hub for medical tourism, according to the Ministry of Health. "People go to London for shopping with their families and receive a check-up or undergo a small operation," said Nasser Khalifa al Budoor, who is in charge of international relations and health affairs at the ministry. He sees no reason why people should not come to the UAE for the same reasons.

"We have so much to offer now, with certified hospitals from international agencies," he said. The global medical tourism industry is worth a fortune, with some estimates assessing its value at Dh200 billion (US$54.4bn) a year. Many sectors in the UAE hope to tap in to this market and are in the process of bringing the health care they offer up to international standards. One of the world's leading accreditation organisations is the Joint Commission International (JCI) in the US, which to date has given its seal of approval to 16 hospitals in the UAE. Although the first, the American Hospital Dubai, was accredited in 2000, almost all the others won accreditation in 2007 and 2008. The latest is Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in Abu Dhabi, which announced last month that it had won JCI status for its Surgical Pavilion, Medical Pavilion and outpatient speciality clinics.

In addition to boosting revenue, accreditation could also improve the standard of medical care for residents of the Emirates. "We have a department here establishing this," said Mr Budoor. "We'll be ready to start receiving patients coming here with their families, whether for plastic surgery, knee replacements or cardiovascular [treatment]. We have so many hospitals, with John Hopkins, Harvard, some of the biggest names in the world are here doing work."

However, it will take more than new hospitals and the latest equipment to lure people here for treatment. Countries with a less developed medical history are already taking a sizeable share of the market by aggressively advertising modestly priced elective surgeries. Thailand is well known for combining the experience of a five-star beach holiday with plastic surgery, while India is a world leader in medical tourism, attracting patients from as far afield as the UK for procedures ranging from routine knee and hip operations to open-heart surgery.

"There are so many issues relating to medical tourism and because the area is developing so quickly it's becoming essential that hospitals, insurers and policymakers, to name a few, work together closely to streamline processes to cater to this market," said Sietske Meerloo, the marketing manager at the exhibition and event company IIR Middle East. In November, IIR will stage the Healthcare Travel Exhibition & Congress 2008 at the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel in Dubai. "We're expecting a great deal of debate at the event and hopefully we'll see some practical solutions adopted for many of these issues," said Ms Meerloo.