Dubai capitalising on its tailored visa regime and geographical location to attract medical tourists

Dubai is planning to capitalise on its expertise in hospitality and medicine to attract 500,000 medical tourists a year by 2020. With the availability of fast-track licences for medical investors, new visas tailored for medical tourists and their relatives, and planning approval granted for as many as 22 new hospitals, authorities in the UAE and Dubai are combining forces to ensure a warm welcome for customers in the wellness industry. The development of medical tourism is one of the major goals of the Dubai Health Sector Strategy for 2013-25.

The strategy assumes a five-fold rate of growth in as many years. In 2012 Dubai attracted 107,000 medical tourists and generated Dh652m ($177.47m) in revenues, or Dh6093 ($1660) per visitor. The target laid down by the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) for 2016 is 170,000 health tourists and revenues of Dh1.1bn ($299.4m), or Dh6470 ($1760) per visitor. By 2020, DHA hopes the development of new facilities and staff will attract 500,000 visitors, generating Dh2.6bn ($707.7m), or Dh5200 ($1415) per visitor.

New Visa Rules

The UAE has started paving the way for medical tourists by introducing new visas tailored to their requirements. Visas for medical treatment are priced at Dh550 ($150), along with a multiple-entry visa priced at Dh1400 ($380). It is hoped that the introduction of medical visas will make it easier for those seeking medical treatment to explain the reason for their visit, but will also give the government a clearer picture of the numbers of tourists coming for treatment. To facilitate the process, DHA experts have announced they will be introducing a medical tourism package in which treatment costs, accommodation and visa costs will be bundled together. In addition, a website specifically about DHA medical tourism is also due to be launched in 2015.

DHCC Survey

Although 22 new hospitals may be scheduled as part of this plan, many health tourists may also be targeting clinics offering elective day-surgery procedures and other outpatient treatments. Dubai Healthcare City (DHCC), the free zone created in 2002 to cater for the medical sector, has over 130 clinical facilities including hospitals accredited by the Joint Commission International (JCI), outpatient centres and laboratories, as well as 180 non-clinical operators including health care consultancies, and organisations dedicated to research and education. “With many hospitals receiving JCI accreditation while continuing to make substantial investments in the latest technologies, Dubai’s health care system is now better placed than ever before to compete with other international medical tourism hubs,” Raghavan Srinivasan, CEO of Emitac Healthcare, told OBG, “The country’s focus on turnkey projects has led to health care companies like ours to diversify into providing end-to-end medical planning, designing and health care IT solutions and be a one-stop-shop for our customers.”

In October 2014, DHCC announced that in the first six months of the year its various facilities had catered to 600,000 patients, and it predicted the same performance would be repeated in the rest of the year, resulting in 1.2m patient visits. As part of the same announcement, DHCC estimated that 15% of those visitors were medical tourists, with patients coming from GCC countries, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe. The range of facilities and medical specialists also grew at DHCC in the first half of 2014, with the opening of nine new centres and the licensing of 315 new health care practitioners by DHCC’s own regulatory body, Dubai Healthcare City Authority, to bring to the total number of licensed medical staff at DHCC to 4101.

Tourism Survey

In August 2014, DHCC published the results of a survey on medical tourism, which showed fertility treatment was the most common reason for visiting, followed by cosmetic elective surgery, dental treatment, cardiac and orthopaedic procedures, treatments or tests. The survey used results from 120 DHCC medical facilities in the first six months of 2014. Doctors were also asked for their views on what prompted patients to select Dubai for treatment and their expectations. Physicians reported that 80% of medical tourists were looking for quality medical care, 61% valued the experience of Dubai’s doctors and 48% highlighted the availability of specific medical treatments. “There has definitely been an increase in invitro fertilisation treatment,” Dr Fatma Alsharaf, the free zone’s resident gynaecologist and head of medical tourism, told local media. “The reasons medical tourists visit DHCC facilities for infertility procedures vary from specialised infertility procedures to geographical proximity. The demand for infertility treatment in the UAE has increased over the past few years because of medical causes, such as sperm problems in men and poly-cystic ovary syndrome in women.”

VIP Treatment

While DHCC licences its own facilities and practitioners, DHA regulators deal with all other applications. In the past, a doctor or nurse hoping to work in Dubai might have to visit first in order to complete paperwork and to take examinations. Now the application process is completed online and exams for Dubai can be taken in accredited examination centres in a number of countries.

The process has been made easier for applicants and partly as a consequence of this, the number of applications has increased. “We have got more people wanting to come to Dubai and more hospitals are being built,” Dr Layla Mohamed Al Marzouqi, the acting director of the DHA’s health regulation department, told OBG. “Every one and a half days there is a new health care facility coming up, and we have had to increase our work and increase our staff so that we do not compromise on quality. We are just one sector, health, and we see 150 to 200 new applications for licensing of facilities or professionals every day.” Although some of DHA’s licence processing is outsourced, there was a concern that a high volume of applications could result in a frustrating experience for investors or health specialists interested in working in Dubai. For this reason, a VIP service with a dedicated staff has been established to ensure a smooth process for premium applicants. “It will be a fast track for people who want a licence,” Al Marzouqi told OBG. “It is for the providers and it is about encouraging investors to open highquality facilities in Dubai, because big investors want to go through the licensing process quickly.”

At the same time, DHA’s regulators recognise that patient trust will be built on Dubai’s record for robust scrutiny of quality in both medical facilities and staff. In the first half of 2014, DHA staff inspected 3004 health care facilities, issued 141 violation notices of which 113 were administrative errors and 28 were technical in nature. There were 2672 licensed health facilities in Dubai including hospitals, clinics, polyclinics, pharmacies, day-care centres and opticians in 2014. Of these, 272 were newly licensed. “We have two types of inspections that we do,” Al Marzouqi told OBG. “One is done before a facility is opened. We go and inspect a place and when there we find out if it is well run and we do a facility inspection and if it is satisfactory we grant them a licence. We also carry out random inspections, and we do this to all health care facilities to make sure they are run properly.”

Building On Success

Alongside the clinical considerations, Dubai is hoping it can leverage its geographical location, its position as an air travel hub and its reputation for delivering luxury retail and hospitality experiences to travellers as part of its medical tourism offering. The scale of Dubai’s ambition can be seen in the detail of some of the medical development schemes already approved. The master plan for the redevelopment of the emirate’s main emergency infirmary, Rashid Hospital, includes two hotels – one four-star and one five-star – a shopping mall, and an ornamental lake. Hospital facilities will include six VIP rooms and seven royal suites. Moreover, the blueprint for the Mall of the World, the extensive covered streetscape to be built over the next 10 years by Dubai Holdings, includes a 3m-sq-foot Wellness District, which means the part of the complex catering for medical tourists will be almost as big as the 3.7m-sq-foot Dubai Mall.

At the same time, expansion plans are also under way at existing facilities. The main buildings at DHCC are 96% let, and three major projects have already been announced for the second phase of the city, which covers 19m sq feet. These included a luxury hotel being designed and built by Azizi Investments, a continuing care community featuring assisted living and nursing homes, and an international scientific school education project that aims to introduce a premedical curriculum at school level.

The idea of nurturing a thriving medical tourism industry is a central plank of the Dubai Health Sector Strategy for 2013-25, but it goes alongside continuing efforts to improve the standard of care for all residents and citizens of Dubai. Administrators hope the emirate will become a leading centre for elective or cosmetic surgery, but they are also working on a parallel strategy of developing sophisticated quaternary care centres that will stem the flow of outbound medical tourists who travel abroad from Dubai to seek treatment for chronic conditions and illnesses.

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The Report: Dubai 2015

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