Dubai is partnering with both private and public sector players to further develop its health care and medical tourism offerings, following strong performance last year.
As part of these efforts, in May the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Health Bank, a private health management services company, to promote medical tourism and enhance service provision in the emirate.
Under the agreement, the Health Bank’s services and features will appear on the Dubai Health Experience (DXH) website, which the DHA launched in April of last year.
“Our aim is to provide medical tourists with unparalleled end-to-end services right from research of doctors and health facilities, to treatment, accommodation, translator services and post-treatment follow-up,” Humaid Al Qatami, chairman of the board and director-general of the DHA, told press after the deal was struck. “We are working closely with the health sector in the emirate to achieve this, and the MoU with the Health Bank will help us further bolster our strategy to provide medical tourists with such services.”
The DXH online portal offers information on types of treatment, prices and visas, among other things, and was rolled out with the aim of lifting the number of foreign medical tourists to 500,000 per year by 2020.
DHA figures suggest solid progress was made towards that goal last year, when non-UAE medical tourist numbers rose by 9.5% to 326,649, bringing in revenue of Dh1.4bn ($381.1m), up from Dh1bn ($272.2m) in 2015.
The result is particularly significant given that medical tourism saw a sharp downturn in some parts of the MENA region, with arrivals in Jordan dropping by 40% year-on-year during the first nine months of 2016, according to the International Medical Travel Journal.
Broadening the base
Recent government moves have set the stage for expansion of medical facilities in some of Dubai’s free zones and that could serve to boost domestic and foreign medical tourism alike.
In 2016, for example, the Dubai Healthcare City Authority (DHCA), which governs the Dubai Healthcare City free zone, inked an agreement with the Dubai Creative Clusters Authority (DCCA), which oversees development of creative industries and 10 of the emirate’s free zones.
The deal set out terms for cooperation between the two parties to allow health care facilities licensed by the DHCA to establish themselves in the DCCA’s free zones.
A similar partnership was formed in March this year between the DHCA and the UAE’s largest free zone, the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre, to allow health care providers registered in Dubai Healthcare City to set up operations there as well.
Both deals will help expand the operational scope of DHCA-licensed health care providers and give them access to a larger customer base, while also bolstering the emirate’s health care infrastructure.
One hurdle the DHA might face in meeting its medium-term targets is the high cost of treatment. Competitors like Malaysia, India, Turkey, Brazil and Thailand can offer treatment for 20-50% below US prices, according to Clements & Co, a US-based insurer that caters to expatriates.
Exchange rate fluctuations have also impacted the flow of patients due to the dirham-US dollar peg, which has effectively raised prices for foreign source markets whose currencies have weakened against the US dollar over the last year.
Since last June the British pound has lost around 10% of its value against the dirham, causing the number of medical tourists from the UK to fall – for example, by 10% at Dubai’s American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery Hospital.
The deterrent effect of high costs could, however, be offset by high standards of treatment, according to Dr Amer Al Zarooni, CEO of Dubai Healthcare City Medical.
“Dubai can compete with established medical tourism destinations on quality, not only in more traditional health care fields, but also in emerging ones such as wellness,” he told OBG.
Home to the world’s busiest airport for international travellers, Dubai has potential to reach a large catchment area, including India, Pakistan, GCC countries and the Levant – all of which have air connections with the emirate that give its health sector a significant advantage in terms of accessibility, Al Zarooni added.
Some industry officials also see growth potential in further specialisation into areas such as paediatrics, cancer, autism and mental health.
“Dubai can compete in the medical tourism space, but it must do so in specialised areas such as paediatric care,” Mohamed Abdulraheim Al Awadhi, COO of Al Jalila Children’s Specialty Hospital, told OBG. “In addition to high-quality specialised care, the city’s high-tech infrastructure, facilities and excellent quality of services are some of the most compelling reasons for medical tourists to choose Dubai over other destinations.”