UAE: Towards A Healthier Future

In a country where the national population sees continued growth alongside a robust rise in the number of expatriates, it is no wonder that the United Arab Emirates is witnessing a year on year rise in demand on healthcare, a vital sector which the country’s government believes should provide top notch services to its residents.

According to Colliers International, the UAE’s population is expected to reach up to 14.5 million in 2018, up from around 9.5 million persons in 2014, should the country’s economic growth patterns and influx in new comers continue.

And with the aging of the young population—where The World Health Organization (WHO), estimates UAE’s size of aging population to be over 15 percent of the population, by 2020—there will likely be “a sharp rise in healthcare demand, as almost 80 percent of a person’s healthcare requirements typically occur after the age of 40-50 years,” estimates Colliers International.

Perhaps that is why the UAE leadership’s “primary interest… is to provide UAE nationals and expatriates, [with] the highest standard and best quality of health care services that fulfill their well-being,” says the UAE’s Minister of Health, Abdul Rahman Bin Mohammed Al Owais.

In his opening message posted on the Health Ministry’s website, Owais says the “country’s progress and development are defined by the sound mind, body, physical and mental safety and well-being of its citizens and residents.” He adds “health, be it for an individual or a country is its true wealth.”

In that respect, the UAE aims to achieve a world-class healthcare system as per its Vision 2021 National Agenda where the government collaborates with “all health authorities to have all public and private hospitals accredited according to clear national and international quality standards of medical services and staff.”

According to information supplied in the Vision 2021 paper, the percentage of ‘Accredited Health Facilities’ in the country—an indicator which measures the share of public and private hospitals adhering to national or internationally recognized standards—is 48 percent as of 2014; the Ministry of Health aims to raise that to 100 percent by 2021.

And despite a projected fall in UAE’s revenues by as much as 22 percent in 2016 due to lower oil prices, according to the International Monetary Fund, the country’s Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum insisted last October that the country’s “priorities” in the 2016 national budget “will be geared towards social development, education and health.”

Perhaps this is best manifested in the UAE’s 2016 Federal Budget which allocated 7.9 percent or 3.83 billion dirhams ($1.04 billion) of its 48.5 billion dirhams ($13.2 billion) to the health sector.

This comes in line with the country’s aim to position itself “as of one of the world’s leading and respected health care service providers,” according to Owais.

Medical Tourism
With all this commitment towards enhancing the health sector, and with the introduction of world class facilities to achieve further progress in terms of providing health services, the country also aims to attract patients from abroad, thus competing for a piece of the regional and international “medical tourism” pie.

In the first half of last year, the emirate of Dubai attracted more than 260,000 medical tourists, according to the World Bank, which placed Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the second and third ranks respectively, right after Jordan, as the most popular medical tourism destinations in the region.

The country is also strongly advertising for its health facilities in multiple languages internally, and has succeeded in attracting international health facilities to pledge to open, and even open medical facilities in the country to cater, not only to residents, but also to traveling patients from across the globe.

The multi billion and very lucrative industry is also creating competitors for the UAE in the region. At the moment, Alpen Capital estimates UAE’s healthcare spending accounts for 26 percent of the total GCC spending, and the GCC healthcare market is projected to grow at a 12.1 percent from an estimated $40.3 billion in 2015 to $71.3 billion in 2020, driven by an increase in the population and rising cost of treatment.

But achieving Vision 2021, and further enhancing its health services cannot happen until the UAE tackles the handicaps its healthcare sector faces, be it shortage in trained staff, specialized medical facilities, and proper legal infrastructure to tackle the rapidly growing industry.

Challenges To Overcome
According to professionals within the sector, WHO, and NGOs, the UAE lacks sufficient healthcare facilities catering to niche specialties, and suffers from a shortage in professionals and trained staff within the sector.

l Non-communicable diseases are responsible for 67 percent of the estimated burden of mortality in 2008 in the UAE, says WHO. This includes cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer, and obesity. According to the UAE’s National Agenda the country seeks “to reduce cancer and lifestyle related diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases,” via supporting preventive medicine.

l Over 60 percent of the population is overweight, according to WHO.

l The International Diabetes Federation says in its most recent report that there are 803,900 diabetics in the UAE alone, out of 37 million diabetics in the Middle East and North Africa region. According to WHO, 20 percent of the UAE population has been diagnosed with diabetes and a further 18 percent is considered at risk of developing diabetes.