A Topline View of the Abu Dhabi Healthcare Sector: An Interview with H.E. Mohamed Al Hameli, Undersecretary at Department of Health—Abu DhabI

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The following was originally published in the October 2019 special print edition of Medical Tourism Magazine, which was initially available at the 12th annual World Medical Tourism & Global Healthcare Congress in Abu Dhabi.

Medical Tourism Magazine: What are some of the current healthcare trends being seen in Abu Dhabi?

H.E. Mohamed Al Hameli: In today’s modern digital era, the doors of healthcare are opening to the newest innovations and transforming along with the rest of the world. Technology is perhaps the biggest trend in the healthcare sector currently—as it is across other sectors too—and the sector is soon to realize a digital transformation. As part of the growth of Abu Dhabi’s healthcare sector, the Department of Health—Abu Dhabi (DoH) is implementing state-of-the-art changes to integrate innovation into healthcare.

In addition to technology, Abu Dhabi is opting to a ‘prevention better than cure’ model, where locals and residents can have more control over their health. The sector is undergoing a structural shift as a younger, more health-con-scious population is seeking preventive care rather than curative care. As part of this shift, Abu Dhabi is looking to make several changes to the healthcare sector to make way for medical tourism as the new frontier and a sustainable source of income to the country’s GDP. Over the last decade, the healthcare industry has emerged as one of the most critical sectors for pursuing economic diversification in the GCC. Governments have started looking at leveraging the private sector as means to sustain healthcare funding. Public-private partnerships are being promoted, mandatory insurance coverage rolled out and private players being encouraged to set up facilities.

MTM: What are DoH’s most recent milestones and how have they impacted the emirate’s healthcare sector?

H.E. Mohamed Al Hameli: In recent years, DoH has begun shifting towards a primary care model in the emirate to improve patients’ access to quality family healthcare and encourage ongoing relationships with their family physician. The sector has witnessed significant progress in performance levels in primary care centers, which are contributing to reducing burden on specialized centers and hospitals as now more patients are receiving treatment at primary care centers.

There is a clear change in the system; previously, patients would visit tertiary hospitals and emergency departments for simple symptoms and diseases.

Following this, DoH launched the “the Abu Dhabi Quality Index in 2014 including Jawda quality indicators covering four main areas: safety, effectiveness of care, timeliness of service delivery, and patient-centric delivery of care with a set of quality outcome indicators under each area. The initiative fulfills DoH strategic targets as it objectively assesses the quality and safety of healthcare services and also allows healthcare facilities to raise their overall quality standards, thereby improving patient confidence in the system.

DoH also recently began placing Emergency Departments into two distinct categories – Emergency Departments and Urgent Care Centers. The Emergency Department provide critical care to patients with acute, life-threatening conditions. Urgent Care Centers provide initial check-up, stabilization, diagnostic and referral services to patients with illnesses and minor injuries on a walk-in basis.

In terms of digital integration, DoH launched the Abu Dhabi Health Information Exchange system, called “Malaffi”, a transformational way to centralize information in the emirate’s healthcare sector. This enhanced system connects public and private healthcare providers in Abu Dhabi, revolutionizing the delivery of healthcare services. The safe and secure system is a necessary tool for physicians to make faster, more efficient medical decisions for patients, reduces overutilization and duplication of healthcare services, improving access to healthcare and ensuring further financial sustainability. “Malaffi” assures confidentiality and facilitates access between patients, healthcare providers and professionals in Abu Dhabi.

This system, coupled with the recent integration of the AI lab in the emirate’s healthcare sector, are a clear shift towards digitalization. With the various forms of modern healthcare being implemented in the emirate, DoH is on the path to push the healthcare system to global frontiers.

MTM: Why should Abu Dhabi be seen as a destination for medical tourism?

H.E. Mohamed Al Hameli: Part of the country’s long-term diversification plan is focused on healthcare, economics and social development, among other sectors. With Abu Dhabi’s current robust regulatory framework in the healthcare sector and with the ongoing integration of technology, DoH is filling capacity gaps and further empowering the region’s medical field. Throughout this process, the emirate is becoming an appealing destination for patients from across the Gulf region and beyond. There is a growing interest in tourism due to the strong appeal in the Asian market because of the proximity of the world-class treatment and services.

In line with Abu Dhabi strategical goals and as a continuation of Muashir - Abu Dhabi Quality Index, the Medical Tourism Network was launched, uniting key players in tourism, transport, immigration and healthcare to offer an unprecedented seamless high-quality specialized healthcare product to international patients.

The “Muashir” program and Medical Tourism Network ensure that international patients access the best-in-class hospitals. Abu Dhabi has attracted a number of international, multispecialty healthcare facilities such as Cleveland Clinic and Imperial College London Diabetes Centre. These international institutes, in addition to locally based health providers such as Healthpoint, Mediclinic and Burjeel Hospital, provide world-class health services that can accommodate patients who require surgical and specialized treatment.

In collaboration with strategic partners, DoH developed a network of service providers to build a comprehensive system to attract and meet international patient requirements utilizing existing local expertise and capacity in healthcare as well as Abu Dhabi’s geographic location and appealing tourism offerings.

An additional advantage for international tourists seeking medical assistance is that the UAE Government facilitates medical tourism visas as well as visiting visas – this has made the process for incoming visitors easier than ever to come to the UAE.

Furthermore, DoH collaborated alongside the Department of Culture and Transport (DCT) and launched the Abu Dhabi Medical Tourism e-portal that would further promote healthcare services. The electronic portal provides a list of healthcare facilities that are included in the medical tourism network, and more than 287 medical treatment packages from over 173 doctors across the emirate. Through the e-portal, users can also access medical tourism insurance packages. This is helping to position Abu Dhabi as a hub for medical tourism, and the UAE as a leading destination for medical services by extension.

MTM: How is medical tourism in Abu Dhabi impacting the UAE’s economy?

H.E. Mohamed Al Hameli: Among the many services that encompass medical tourism, one major benefit is that the UAE’s economy is positively affected by the fast-growing industry. By facilitating the visa process, recruiting more specialists and training medical professionals, the UAE is investing heavily in its healthcare, which also impacts its economic and social development.

The Abu Dhabi Medical Tourism e-portal, the first of its kind in the region, provides a wide range of tourism services such as direct contact with healthcare providers, visa issuance, booking appointments, hotels, transportation and other recreational activities.

Medical tourism is expected to contribute US$708 million to the UAE’S GDP by 2020, with 13 percent predicted year-on-year revenue growth. The need to build world-class healthcare is one of the pillars of the National Agenda, and the UAE Government is driving massive efforts to ensure seamless collaboration to build an effective healthcare system. This opens a valuable opportunity for global service providers to exchange expertise and capabilities, from improving healthcare experiences, to raising awareness on effective health coverage and health management. These factors directly influence the economy and boost the country’s GDP.

MTM: Where is Abu Dhabi's Healthcare System Heading?

H.E. Mohamed Al Hameli: As the regulator for Abu Dhabi’s healthcare sector, DoH’s goals and strategic objectives focus on maintaining an efficient, sustainable healthcare sector.

Its main vision is to become a leading city for world-class healthcare, for both local and international patients. DoH envisions, alongside the UAE Government, to become a preferred destination for medical tourism.

With the continued integration of technology and the use of AI, there is a significant shift in the traditional medical methods used in earlier years.

We are witnessing a turning point in the healthcare sector, one which will not only impact the UAE, but will also have a ripple effect across the region and the globe