More than 70 per cent of UAE residents would seek medical treatment overseas if they fell seriously ill, according to a survey that reveals a widespread lack of confidence in the nation's healthcare system.
Even Emiratis showed little faith in it, with 57 per cent saying they would seek treatment abroad. Only 21 per cent of all respondents would put their faith in UAE healthcare if they became seriously ill, according to the survey, carried out from July 24 to 28 for The National by YouGov, an international research organisation. More than half (53 per cent) of the 876 people asked said they would prefer to return to their home countries for treatment, while 18 per cent said they would seek treatment in other countries.
Analysis of responses by national groups suggests that this lack of confidence might be based on more than mere perceptions or prejudices; although a high proportion of Asians (71 per cent), westerners (57 per cent) and Arab expatriates (42 per cent) opted for leaving for treatment in their home countries - an option not open to Emiratis - only 26 per cent of UAE nationals said they would be happy receiving treatment here.
A similar proportion of Arab (27 per cent) and western (24 per cent) expatriates said they would elect to be treated here for serious illnesses, but only 15 per cent of Asians said the same. Dr Fatma Abdulla, a fellow at the Dubai School of Government, said the healthcare sector had only itself to blame for the lack of confidence. Health care had become a consumer industry, she said, and suppliers had to start focusing more on giving patients the best possible personal care.
"Customer focus is completely non-existent here," she said. "You now have a very sophisticated, informed consumer, who wants the best. "Here, healthcare providers have stuck to the old model of 'We know what is best for you'. They treat you like you don't know anything." Although cost was a consideration for 20 per cent of respondents who would seek treatment abroad, the overwhelming reasons were better medical expertise (33 per cent) and a lack of trust in the UAE healthcare system (25 per cent).
Again, at 40 and 33 per cent, Emiratis topped these categories. A high proportion of respondents (45pc) said that either their friends and family in the UAE or they themselves (13pc) had travelled abroad for medical care, including surgery. The main proportion of respondents who had travelled for treatment were westerners - 27 per cent. Destinations for such medical tourism varied, largely according to nationality. India was the most popular, with 57 per cent of those who had gone abroad for treatment, or whose friends of family had done so, saying it had been a destination.
Thailand was the top destination for Emiratis (64 per cent). For western expatriates, the UK was the top choice for 61 per cent. Thailand and the US attracted 17 per cent each. In November, the Ministry of Health announced that a ratings system for doctors and hospitals would be introduced as part of a drive to make the UAE a destination for medical tourism. At the same time, Dubai's Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing predicted that more than 11 million people would visit the UAE for treatment between then and 2010.
The National survey, however, reveals scepticism about the plan. Respondents were asked how well equipped they felt the UAE was to tap into the medical tourism market now or in the near future. Less than a third believed it was well equipped to do so; 28 per cent thought it was not well equipped and 19 per cent felt it was not at all ready. The biggest vote of confidence came from Emiratis - although there were also the group most likely to travel elsewhere for treatment.