Modern UAE health care: From a mud hut to skyscraper hospitals

When the Oasis Hospital in Al Ain was founded in 1960, only half of babies survived, one in three mothers died during childbirth and malaria, tuberculosis, eye diseases and internal parasites were rife.

One of the two doctors at the opening of the Al Ain Oasis Hospital in 1960, Dr Marian Kenned speaks to a patient at the hospital’s first building, a mud block two-storey house donated by Sheikh Zayed. Courtesy Oasis Hospital
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ABU DHABI // One of the first hospitals in the UAE can be traced back to a mud hut in the Al Ain desert, the vision of two Sheikhs to provide adequate health care in the country and the work of two US missionaries.

The Oasis Hospital in Al Ain was founded in 1960 under the patronage of Sheikh Zayed, the founding President, and his brother, Sheikh Shakhbut.

They wanted to reduce the high death rates in the community at a time when only half of babies survived, one in three mothers died during childbirth and malaria, tuberculosis, eye diseases and internal parasites were rife.

"Oasis Hospital began offering modern medical services in 1960 as the first hospital in the Abu Dhabi region," said Jeffrey Newman, the current president and chief executive of the hospital.

"Since that time, we've continued to set the standard for modern, progressive health care in the region."

When the Oasis Hospital was founded, UAE healthcare facilities were non-existent, except from a small centre in Al Ras, Dubai.

The Sheikhs had visited American-run hospitals in other Arab states and wanted something similar.

On November 20, 1960, Americans Dr Marian Kennedy and her husband Dr Pat Kennedy arrived with their five children and set up base in a mud-block guest house donated by Sheikh Zayed.

Within days, their first patient arrived and soon more than 200 patients visited each day. As the hospital outgrew its base and expanded into a concrete building, other healthcare facilities began springing up across the Emirates.

In 1966, a small outpatient department opened in Abu Dhabi, which was closely followed by the appointment of Dr Philip Horniblow, a Briton with a brief to develop a national health service.

This led Sheikh Zayed to open the Central Hospital in 1968.

After the UAE was founded in 1971, a rapid growth characterised the health sector. Over the next 10 years, hospitals such as the 300-bed Al Jazeera Hospital, in Abu Dhabi, and the 157-bed Al Maktoum Hospital and 393-bed Rashid Hospital, both in Dubai, were opened.

Community clinics also opened and the number of hospital beds, physicians, nurses and medical staff grew rapidly.

Dr Charles Stanford, now the chief executive of Abu Dhabi's Burjeel Hospital, arrived in the emirate in 1996 as the head of medicine and, subsequently, the medical director for Central and Al Jazeera hospitals.

There were few formal assessments of hospitals at the time, he said, but when Health Authority - Abu Dhabi was developed, a more systematic approach followed.

Formal inspections of all healthcare facilities and the collection of more patient data followed.

"Now every single patient that is seen in Abu Dhabi, about 50 bits of information have to go to the health authority before it can be sent to the insuring companies," he said.

"It's so that they can collect data and ensure that everything is good, that everything is genuine, that the health service is being provided in a legitimate, lawful manner."

Mandatory insurance in Abu Dhabi in 2006 was also a major milestone, Dr Stanford said.

"That changed the whole picture because then people started to go to private hospitals as well. Now more than 70 per cent of outpatient attendances are to private hospitals," he added. Dr Stanford has also witnessed a big increase in the number of external providers, from the United States, Australia, Europe and the Far East, wanting to offer their services in the UAE.

Dr Tarek Fathey, hospital director at Mediclinic City Hospital, first arrived in Dubai 15 years ago.

For him, the biggest medical milestone has been the influx of private healthcare providers in the emirate, which has increased medical staff and hospital beds.

According to the UAE Investment Map, there are now more than 9,000 hospital beds in the UAE, compared with 700 in 1971.

"Private health care has played a pivotal role in improving healthcare practices in Dubai," said Dr Fathey.

By 2011, there were more than 1,500 doctors, 1,000 dentists and 540 nurses in the private sector alone, he said.

Dr Mariam Buti Al Mazrouei, deputy chief executive of Abu Dhabi's Corniche Hospital, graduated from a UAE medical school in the mid-1990s.

"There is more availability of the sub-specialities and there is a system to ensure the competency of the clinicians," Dr Al Mazrouei said.