Dubai’s appeal as a vacation destination and its increasing standards of health care are ensuring steady growth in the emirate’s medical tourism industry. At current rates of expansion, the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) target of attracting 500,000 medical tourists by 2021 seems within reach, although it will require the help of the high influx of travellers expected for Dubai Expo 2020, a global entertainment and cultural event.
Figures from the DHA indicate that 337,000 medical tourists visited Dubai in 2018 and spent an estimated total of Dh1.16bn ($315.8m). This was an increase of just over 10,000 on 2016, when the emirate attracted 326,600 medical tourists, according to a December 2018 report. However, this represents a slowing pace of growth after the number of medical tourists more than tripled in the previous four years, growing from a baseline of 107,000 in 2012.
The largest growth area for medical tourism in Dubai is dentistry, as it accounted for almost half (46%) of all treatments undertaken by medical tourists in 2018. This was followed by orthopaedics (18%) and dermatology (10%). Dentistry is new to the three-most popular treatments, with orthopaedics, dermatology and ophthalmology holding those spots in 2016.
While medical tourism is indeed growing in some respects, its development is tied to improvements in the quality of care provided at local facilities. “Medical tourism is a long-term possibility, but at present it is only having a supplementary impact on patient numbers at health care facilities,” Mark Adams, founder and chairman of The Healthcare Network, told OBG. “Emiratis often travel abroad for specialist treatments, so when the majority of Emiratis stay in Dubai to receive treatment, that is when we will know that medical tourism has gained a real reputation here.”
This latter point is supported by a recent shift in the geographic composition of visitors, with medical tourists increasingly coming from Dubai’s surrounding region. In 2018 GCC and Arab countries comprised the largest regional source market, at 33%, followed closely by visitors from other Asian markets such as India and Pakistan (30%). This is a reversal of the 2016 scenario when Asian markets accounted for 37% of visitors, and GCC and Arab world visitors made up 31%.
Among the developments that will enhance Dubai’s offering as a medical tourism destination is a Dh40m ($10.9m) dedicated cosmetic and aesthetic surgery hospital by local clinic chain CosmeSurge, the first of its kind in the region. The hospital, which opened in May 2019, has surgeons and a staff of over 100 employees operating in a 2944-sq-metre facility. Specialist treatments include plastic surgery, dermatology, aesthetic services and body contouring, as well as diagnostic offerings such as radiology, pathology and intensive care. The construction of the hospital reflects the popularity of cosmetic surgery among resident and visiting customers: CosmeSurge provides 60 types of cosmetic treatment across 14 locations in the UAE and one in Oman.
Support for medical tourism in Dubai began in earnest in 2014 with the creation of the Dubai Health Tourism Strategy and the Health Tourism Council being established within the DHA. As one of 15 programmes under Dubai Health Strategy 2016-21, plans for medical tourism include improving soft and hard infrastructure; updating and revising regulations; and enhancing the sector ecosystem to accommodate more medical tourists. Among the government’s tools for promoting medical tourism is Dubai Health Experience – also known as DXH – a web and mobile app portal that provides prospective medical tourists with personalised options according to their health care needs. Drawing on a pool of 75 participating facilities, DXH also offers packages that incorporate flight, hotel and visa information. DXH is hoped to be a one-stop shop for prospective patients’ medical tourism questions. In 2019 the DXH website began offering versions in Chinese and Russian, alongside English and Arabic.
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