MTM Chats with Dr. Armand Abraham, Medical Advisor for the Kuwait Oil Company Medical Travel Program

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Dr. Armand Abraham, Medical Advisor for Kuwait Oil Company and guest speaker at the upcoming World Medical Tourism & Global Healthcare Congress, sat down with Medical Tourism Magazine to talk about about current trends in Kuwaiti medical travel and what the future holds for the industry.

Medical Tourism Magazine (MTM): Thank you for your time, Dr. Abraham. To start, could you tell us a little bit about your role with Kuwait Oil Company?

Dr. Abraham: I'm a medical advisor. Kuwait Oil Company is a government-owned subsidiary of the Kuwait Petroleum Corporation, which has over 10,000 employees worldwide. The corporation runs a self-sponsored healthcare plan that covers medical care provided by Ahmadi Hospital for all employees in the Oil sector and their dependents living in the State of Kuwait.

Those that might require specialized care for more complex cases such as cardiology, oncology, and orthopedics are referred through the London Medical Department, which is where I come in. The hospital transfers patient records to us and we do the management from here. My role, therefore, is to advise, recommend, and approve medical services for the patients and their dependents.

We do referrals mainly to the UK and the US, but we also refer to other countries, including Spain, Germany, and Italy, and our referrals are to hospitals and medical providers that we trust to provide top-quality care.

MTM: What do you look out for when sending patients to providers abroad, in terms of cost and quality?

Dr. Abraham: For us, cost is not a top priority. What we consider top priority is the reputation of that center.  Are they world-renowned for treating a particular set of complex conditions? What are their success rates for those treatments? Do they have a research center? Those are the questions we want answers to when selecting a provider or hospital for our patients. For instance, what comes to mind for complex oncology cases are the Johns Hopkins hospital in the United States and the Royal Marsden hospital in the UK.

Another factor we consider is language and ease of communication. As you know, not all Kuwaitis speak the language of the destination country we refer them to. Hence, we prefer to refer them to English-speaking countries, which is why we mostly send them to US and UK hospitals.

We also consider the overall patient experience in that destination. Does the hospital have an international patient center? are there interpreters to ensure patients are kept in the loop at all stages of their care? Are they fast, and do they put patient experience as a top priority? This is why, for example, I will send a cancer patient to the Royal Marsden Hospital in the UK and not to a University hospital in Italy. While this hospital in Italy might be a center of excellence in oncology, the patient journey and experience will be much better in the UK.

The speed of care is also crucial. We want the patient journey to be as speedy as possible without compromising the quality of their care. So hospitals or providers that can provide top-notch medical care and also ensure the comfort, ease, and smoothness of the patient journey are top destinations for us.

MTM: What’s your typical day like as a medical advisor in that capacity?

Dr. Abraham: I am the point of contact between the health care providers here in the UK and the Ahmadi hospital referral office in Kuwait – like the middle man. The hospital notifies me of a patient who needs a referral and I make the referral to the best hospitals here in the UK to care for the patient’s medical needs. So every day I keep patients in the loop, answering their questions and providing clarity when they need it.

Furthermore, I provide recommendations to the referral office in Kuwait for the best healthcare provider or hospital to treat a case. I also make approvals.  For instance, a pediatric patient sent for treatment here may develop some complications that require other treatment. Approval for these medical services, therefore, comes from my office.

MTM: What percentage of Kuwaiti patients are sent overseas?

Dr. Abraham: It is difficult to estimate that, given that we have about 10,000 employees in the Kuwait Oil Company worldwide who visit different healthcare providers and not just Ahmadi Hospital.

MTM: What type of patients or cases gets referred out of Kuwait?

Dr. Abraham: Specialized cases, a majority of which are cancer cases. This is not to say treatment services in oncology in Kuwait are poor, but these cases vary in complexity, and being a patient-centric organization, we are focused on giving them the best possible care. So we send the complex cases abroad.

MTM: Do you ever add or remove hospitals from your network?

Dr. Abraham: We do add hospitals to our network of providers. This comes after thorough research about treatments that are not available in Kuwait and providers abroad that are renowned in that area of care. For example, if there is a certain hospital in Manchester that provides a certain treatment, we contact them and add them to our list. We, however, have not removed hospitals because most of these centers adhere to standard guidelines of patient care and treatment quality. If these hospitals breach these treatment guidelines, we may have to remove them, but we have not seen any situation that necessitates that.

MTM: What’s the biggest challenge you face sending patients abroad?

Dr. Abraham: It’s the language and cultural barrier. It is the responsibility of a hospital’s international patient center to facilitate communication between a provider and the patient, and this is one of the most important aspects of a patient’s medical trip - even if the provider offers quality clinical care. Bearing in mind that patients who are referred have complex cases, they need all the information about their condition and treatment by the minute. Furthermore, the medical companions, who are usually parents of the patients, need clear information to allay their anxieties.

MTM: So far in your position, have you found healthcare facilities now factoring international patient experience when providing care?

Dr. Abraham: Yes, I have noticed since I joined the Kuwait Oil Company that more hospitals are either opening an international patient center to facilitate the patient medical experience or expanding their offices, in terms of number and quality of services, to facilitate this. This reflects the increased demand for medical travel and a better awareness of the need for improved patient experience for these patients.

MTM: From your perspective, what are some of the gaps in the medical travel industry?

Dr. Abraham: The small number of international patient departments that can ensure a smooth patient experience is a big gap in the industry. If a hospital wants to grow to become a world-renowned center, they need to be aware of the need for an improved international patient experience. They need to invest in international patient departments. A satisfied patient will go back to his or her home country and tell stories – as we see in surveys that we conduct – about their experience and the hospital. This puts the hospital in a positive light, further expanding its brand.

MTM: What are other findings you have obtained from those surveys?

Dr. Abraham: Some patients complain about the distance; some say the hospital is too far from an airport or city center. However, that is more of a complaint from patients we refer to the US. In the US, for example, you may need to travel to a different state for treatment, and this could prolong the trip. Furthermore, for certain treatments, patients might stay for up to a year or two years in the destination country, potentially worsening their anxiety.  So providers must consider that patients are individuals that come from a different culture and location who need to be treated comfortably and within the shortest time possible.

MTM: Thank you for your time Dr. Abraham. We’ll see you in Abu Dhabi.

Dr. Abraham: Thank you. See you soon.