Economic Update

Published 25 Jun 2016

Far-reaching reforms aimed at strengthening Kuwait’s national health care system are gaining momentum, as the government moves forward with its plans to rationalise public spending in the face of a rising budget deficit.

Plans for overhauling the health care sector include reducing the number of patients travelling abroad for treatment and focusing on preventive health care through the promotion of healthier lifestyle choices and screening services.

The reforms are expected to produce sizeable savings over time, while also paving the way for greater private participation across the sector.

Homegrown focus

Reforming Kuwait’s health care system forms a key part of the government’s KD31bn ($102.9bn) Kuwait Development Plan (KDP). Taking the form of a series of five-year plans, with the most recent blueprint for 2015-2020, the KDP envisages a raft of initiatives and legislation supporting project development in health care as well as across other areas of the economy.

In line with the KDP framework, the Ministry of Health (MoH) plans to construct eight hospitals and hospital extensions at a cost of $1bn. The Ministry of Public Works has also allocated $4.2bn to build nine additional hospitals, which will boost the number of beds available in public facilities by 3334, while creating an estimated 15,000 new jobs.

The new builds will enable Kuwait to offer more specialised treatments locally, helping to bring down the national health care bill over time by reducing the number of outbound medical tourists.

Long a cause of concern, Kuwait’s growing health care bill has become a focal point for the government amidst a challenging economic environment, which has seen revenues fall on the back of low oil prices.

Kuwait’s budget deficit is expected to reach KD12.2bn ($40.5bn) during the current fiscal year, marking an increase of 50%. 

Medical tourism

The number of Kuwaitis travelling out of the country for treatment has long been a cause for concern, especially in terms of the length of time some patients spend abroad. However, government action taken to address this issue has already seen some progress.

In 2015 the MoH said that new regulations introduced the previous year, including boosting the standards of local medical facilities, have reduced the number of Kuwaitis travelling abroad for treatment by more than 50%. The number of Kuwaiti outbound medical tourists undergoing treatment in London, for example, fell from 1100 in 2013 to 500 in 2014.  

The government has also recently announced it would reduce the daily allowances provided to patients travelling abroad for treatment as well as to their companions, according to local media.

However, the overall bill remains considerable, with the Kuwaiti government spending KD441m ($1.5bn) to fund 11,000 medical trips abroad in 2014, according to the State Audit Bureau.

New trends

A significant number of Kuwait’s outbound medical tourists seek treatment for diseases linked to lifestyle choices, such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. In fact, almost all of Kuwaiti cancer patients are treated abroad, as well as many nationals with diabetes.

Like other GCC member states, Kuwait has witnessed rising levels of type 2 diabetes, sparked, in part, by an influx of Western fast food outlets and sedentary lifestyles. Kuwait recorded 399,900 cases of diabetes in 2015, according to the International Diabetes Federation (IDF), which is equivalent to 10.3% of the population.

Up to 50% of GCC nationals with diabetes are unaware that they have the condition, making diagnosis and identification of pre-diabetes symptoms a priority for governments.

The MENA region spends at least $5.5bn or 14% of total health care expenditure annually on diabetes care and treatment. The average annual cost of treating a patient with diabetes in Kuwait is $2040, according to the IDF, bringing the overall cost of treating the condition in Kuwait last year to $815.8bn.

In-demand services

In a move aimed at meeting rising demand, several health care providers have begun introducing both specialty care for diabetes and screening programmes.

In December 2015 the Dasman Diabetes Institute (DDI), a multidisciplinary research-based facility located in Kuwait City, teamed up with the Sultan Center, a supermarket retailer, to offer a free screening programme. More recently, the institute hosted a knowledge workshop on insulin pump therapy and glucose monitoring for health care professionals.  

“Managing diabetes requires complex and demanding self-care,” Dr Qais Saleh Al Duwairi, director-general of DDI, told OBG. “A good diet, physical activity, diabetes-related counselling and interventions such as educational outreach can all play a valuable role in mitigating the burden of diabetes.

A recent DiabCare study from the Gulf region found that educating patients about diabetes could increase life expectancy by 17%, and reduce the costs associated with treatment by 8%.

Although more can be done to improve screening services and treatment, initiatives such as these are expected to play an important role in Kuwait’s efforts to create a more sustainable health care sector.

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