Study shows Emiratis and expats in UAE prefer overseas medical care

A health authority study reveals that both Emiratis and expats go overseas for more skilled medics and shorter waiting times.

Ineffective communication, a lack of specialist services and the length of time it takes to consult with a doctor are among the reasons residents are seeking medical treatment abroad.

Emiratis and expatriates who had gone overseas for health care were questioned by Dubai Health Authority (DHA) and the Dubai Statistics Centre.

Eight per cent of respondents said they did not even seek medical advice in the UAE before opting for treatment overseas. More than half of this group (56 per cent) cited the lack of medical skill and equipment as the reason.

Almost a fifth of respondents blamed long waiting times, a lack of medical skills and a lack of equipment. The cost of care was also listed as a factor in their refusal to consider treatment here.

Nearly all (91 per cent) were satisfied with their treatment abroad, with 94.4 per cent attributing this to good communication and interpersonal skills overseas.

The study surveyed more than 2,000 people - about one quarter of them expatriates - who travelled abroad for treatment from 2009 until the end of last year. They were asked about their knowledge of, attitude towards and perception of overseas treatment.

Laila Al Jassmi, the chief executive officer of DHA's health policy and strategy sector, said that for communication to improve between patients and healthcare workers in the UAE, more must be done to promote primary health care.

"Most patients [said] there was a problem with communication with their treating physician," she said.

As part of the DHA's overhaul of the health system, new regulations focus on bridging the gap between the community and primary healthcare practitioners, said Ms Al Jassmi.

"[We are] directing patients towards primary healthcare physicians prior to their visits to health specialists at the hospitals," she said.

"What we have in DHA public hospitals is a situation where patients do not see the specialist unless they have been referred by the primary healthcare physician."

DHA's control does not reach as far as the private sector, where patients frequently bypass visiting a primary physician.

Joint problems and back pain were the main complaints that triggered a need for medical attention, accounting for 18.2 and 9.1 per cent of the people surveyed, respectively.

The three most popular treatments sought overseas were for cancer (19.7 per cent), bone and joint diseases (14.1 per cent) and cardiovascular diseases (12.5 per cent).

But the trend for seeking treatment overseas for joint and bone disease issues is waning, said Dr Humeira Badsha, a rheumatologist and vice chairwoman of the Emirates Arthritis Foundation.

"With regards to knee replacements, often it's much cheaper to do this in another country, such as India," she said.

A rise in the availability of insurers has helped this change. "I have seen that trend reversing in Dubai in recent years, with more insurance penetration," Dr Badsha said.

More than half of those who travelled abroad cited a lack of specialist treatment as their reason for doing so, while 15 per cent did not know. Just under a third said they were aware the necessary treatment was available here.

Of those, long waiting times, privacy concerns, the anticipation of unwanted outcomes and improper behaviour of service providers pushed them towards going abroad.

The top places to travel for all types of treatment were Germany - favoured by 43.1 per cent of respondents - Thailand, Singapore, India, the UK and the US.