Dubai’s medical tourism prospects

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More often than not, planning a visit to a foreign country is an ambitious undertaking. Adding a stopover for a medical treatment during that visit only complicates the matter.

Yet, a total of 630,833 medical tourists made their way to Dubai in 2015. The Emirate hopes that by 2020, there will be as many as 500,000 medical tourists each year.

Pawel Cebula, COO and cofounder of Berlin-based Medigo, defines a medical tourist as one who travels to another country [apart from his/her home] for medical care. “However, a wider definition might include people who are traveling for business and leisure,” he told Wamda, “and might require emergency care as well as expatriate care.”

Medigo, an online tourism platform, focuses on the former, that is travel that can be planned at least a day or two in advance, in order to find best quality provider at the best price. The UAE is Medigo’s fifth largest source market and the company plans to officially launch in Dubai later this year.

Pawel Cebula of Medigo. (Image via Medigo)

In a strong push to attract more medical tourists, the Dubai Health Authority (DHA)  recently launched Dubai Health Experience (DXH), a portal and website for international visitors to explore medical treatment options in Dubai. The website offers details on visa service, hospitals, medical insurance, hotel stay as well as discounted Emirates airfare for visitors to select their ideal package.

A Dubai goal, obviously

The portal launch is in sync with Dubai’s announcement of being the world’s first medical tourism hub. Along with patients, hospitals, doctors and health insurance providers, the government and private sector are among the key stakeholders in a city’s medical tourism operations, says Samer Mazahreh, cofounder of medical tourism facilitator, Salamatak Healthcare Management.  

Big numbers, but big business? (Image via Medigo)

Noting that it often takes two months or more for interested medical tourists to source the right hospital, hotel, flight, etcetera, a medical tourism facilitator do so within a few days - so says Mazahreh.

Salamatak was the first licensed medical tourism facilitator in Dubai, appointed by Dubai Healthcare City (DHCC) in 2013. However it recently shut down due to internal differences.

Prior to sorting through any treatment options, a medical tourist typically needs a couple questions answered.

“Medical tourism is about two things - are you going to get better care than you are at home [in terms of] access and quality, and are you going to get cheaper care than you would at home,” says Ali Hashemi, founder of Amana Healthcare.

Sheikh Hamdan announces the launch of ‘Dubai,
a Global Destination forMedical Tourism’. (Image via DHA)

Dubai is an expensive city, whether as a resident or a tourist. So, what would draw patients to Dubai?

Reasonable quality for more routine treatments, plus proximity to other GCC and African countries, says Cebula. “But it’s not just about geographical proximity, it’s also [about] cultural proximity, which is something patients value and appreciate.”

Healthy numbers

DHA’s statistic on the number of medical tourists in 2015 accounts for the visits to the DXH registered 26 hospitals, with 332,472 from within the UAE and 298,359 (46 percent) from abroad making the final numbers. The total revenue from both was $400 million.

These numbers are contested though by the International Medical Tourism Journal who say that not all healthcare clinics are submitting data and that to truly identify medical tourists in an Emirate filled with expats coming and going is hard.

In 2014, the DHA hosted the first Dubai Health Regulation and Medical Tourism conference with more than 1,000 medical professionals in attendance. Even then, “medical tourism was of great relevance owing to high patient mobilization that is been happening in search of better and advanced healthcare services” said Jenny Mariam John from DHA’s Development. The 2016 conference will be held in October and include a network session facilitated by the World Health Tourism Congress.

Nadim Zidan of Hollywood Stars. (Image via Nadim Zidan)

To truly understand Dubai’s value proposition in medical tourism, one needs to compound the quality and cost of care with the city’s success in reversing the outbound [medical] tourism and getting new people here,” says Hashemi.

Nadim Zidan, a Medical Tourism Association certified professional and founder of medical tourism platform
Hollywood Stars ME, said most of his customers came from within the GCC, with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia topping the list. Tourists from the African continent also came to Dubai for treatment with cardiology and cosmetic surgery being the most common treatment needs among his customers.

Zidan said the process of matching the patient to the provider is an intricate one that involves taking the patient inquiry to network hospitals, assembling and sending the feedback, setting up Skype conversations, and getting blood test results from patients if necessary to then begin the logistics of planning of hotel stay, flight reservations, etcetera.  

Going the other way

While incoming tourism to Dubai is on the rise, an internal study at Medigo found over 30,000 patients from the UAE go overseas each year for treatments including dental, plastic and cosmetic surgery, and bariatric surgery.

Repeated requests for an interview with DHCC officials on the matter were not met before this article was to be published. The latest DXH press release however describes the initial focus of the initiative to be on “attracting medical tourists from all around the GCC, Russia, countries of the former Soviet Union, India, Pakistan and Africa”, with 10 medical treatment specialities being offered.

Mazareh said the market is viable and in need of investors, specifying that if he “were to do it again, I would focus on one treatment and I would do it globally...I would focus on the GCC and [also] sending patients abroad”.

In fact, being a “super specialized” facility is absolutely critical to Amana’s succes. Amana focuses on long term intensive care, and has a detailed on boarding process in place for a new patient and their family, including family accommodation on site.

“We are not trying to be everything to everyone,” Hashemi said. “It’s about your input and execution …your ability to attract and employ the best people, have good processes, good clinical standards and good management - if you have the right ingredients - you can deliver extremely high quality care here.”

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