It’s been over ten years since Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh
Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, announced the launch of Dubai Healthcare City (DHCC). While the much-touted city was designed to “meet the demand for high-quality, patient-centered healthcare” in the region, there was plenty of speculation surrounding its prospects for attracting medical travelers the world over.
In the years that followed the initial announcement, numerous hospital CEOs, international healthcare professionals, and medical travel facilitators flocked to see the emerging city and potential opportunities. Unfortunately, by 2008 and due to the global economic crisis, what many saw were half-erected buildings and dusty cranes. The impression was not a good one; many in the medical travel industry wrote the project off as a pie-in-the-sky effort and began to look elsewhere for the next big opportunity.
But even as others looked away, the region’s government and healthcare leaders remained focused and committed to their cause.
According to Dr. Ayesha Abdullah, managing director of DHCC, “At the end of 2008 the economic downturn affected almost every sector around the world, including healthcare, and DHCC was no exception. We went back to our drawing board and revisited some of the projects that were in the pipeline. We made a conscious decision to wait until the financial crisis was well behind us before we brought these proposals to fruition.”
The wait seems to have been worth it as, according to Abdullah, “Last year, the UAE registered optimistic economic growth that exceeded the Central Bank’s estimations for 2011. The projections for this year are as promising, and we are hoping to see more developments coming on stream, even while coping with the repercussions of the crisis.”
Today, DHCC has grown into a 4.1 million square-foot campus accommodating two Joint Commission International (JCI) accredited hospitals, 100 medical centers spanning 86 specialty areas, numerous centers of excellence ranging from dermatology and hair transplants to endocrinology and cardiology. In 2011, 502,000 patients visited the DHCC and scored their patient satisfaction level at a 92. Of those 502,000 patients, 15 percent (75,300) were medical tourists.
A second phase of growth is slated to house “wellness clusters” featuring well-being and nutritional centers, spas and sports medicine facilities.
Healthcare as Part of a National Strategy
In 2007 the ruling government of Dubai established the Dubai Health Authority (DHA), with the aim of providing complete strategic oversight for the complete health sector in Dubai, and enhance private sector engagement.While DHCC has served as a focal point for Dubai’s
developing healthcare industry, the reality is the interest in and efforts to develop and deliver world-class care go well beyond this one facility.
The DHA’s CEO of Health Policy & Strategy Sector at Dubai Health Authority Laila Al Jassmi notes that, “the Dubai and UAE Governments are very proactive and supportive to the development of a sustainable health system in the Emirate. Various government entities are working in tandem to bring in health investments for identified priorities and to support the development of health infrastructure, including health information networks, health policies and research, and that would enable a stronger and more sustainable health system.”
The developing system includes more than merely hospitals and clinics. The DHCC community alone includes nine of the world’s 12 largest pharmaceuticals, insurers, research facilities and education centers. While numerous international entities participate in the system, the goal remains to create a regional center of excellence for quality care.
Al Jassmi says, “We aim to support growth and build a sustainable health system for our Nationals and residents, while also striving to keep people from traveling outside Dubai for medical care, to the extent possible. But there is a definite concerted effort to identify, encourage and develop health and wellness services that would help attract foreign patients and strengthen our health system.”
Working with the Dubai Healthcare City Authority, Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce, Department of Residency & Foreign Affairs and all healthcare providers in the Emirate, DHA is hoping to develop a unified medical tourism initiative for the Emirate.
“This is something we have been working in the background for a while,” says Al Jassmi. “[We have been] building upon other initiatives linked to medical tourism, such as the clinical services capacity plan.”
Supported by the leadership and encouragement from His Royal Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, Chairman of Dubai executive council, the initiative falls in line with the goals of the current Dubai Health Sector Strategy Plan and draws on the strength of private healthcare entities, government agencies, airlines and tourism-related industries to promote the Emirate as a whole.
As Al Jassmi explains, “Dubai is unlike any other place in the world, in the manner in which it blends the East and the West… We have amongst the best tourism infrastructure in the world, and we are seeing tourism numbers growing year on year at over 10 percent.”
Add to that the fact that Dubai has over 4,750 physicians speaking over 40 languages and multiple JCI-accredited facilities, and indeed the region looks well-prepared to handle a desired medical tourism boom.
Key to the current and future readiness is government support. While the government has always been supportive in granting land for priority health investments, and also supporting and facilitating licensing of facilities and health professionals, future endorsement will need to go beyond traditional governmental actions or decrees.
Much of Dubai’s success and image will hinge on the willingness of its highest profile individuals to stay in the region for care. Once popular entitlements granting high-level diplomats to travel elsewhere for care will need to become a thing of the past. By demonstrating their confidence in the quality of care available, they will build confidence within their citizenry. Subsequent stories of successful outcomes will then serve as all the marketing needed to attract patients from neighboring countries and far-flung land