Q & A- Dubai Health Authority - Medical Tourism Initiatives

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In April, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of Dubai Executive Council, held a meeting with directors of departments and local institutions in regards to Dubai Health Authority’s (DHA) new medical tourism initiatives in the emirate. Meeting attendees included: the Minister for Cabinet Affairs, Chairman for Emaar Properties, Director General of Dubai Naturalization and Residence, Director General of the Dubai Health Authority and Director General of Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing.


Dubai Medical Tourism Group, comprised of those who attended the meeting, has been set up to collaborate and implement a number of initiatives that will address the needs of identified markets, work towards branding Dubai as the go-to destination for medical tourism, and stop citizens from leaving the country for high-end medical services.


Also, Dubai Healthcare City, a healthcare free zone developed to promote medical tourism, is a partner in the initiatives and has been successful so far in attracting patients from the UAE and around the region.

Dubai’s trade and tourism industry is already developed, as visitors from across the globe travel there for business, exhibitions, shopping and entertainment. The city is seeing over a 10 percent growth each year in the tourism sector.


The DHA believes the city is ready for the growth of its medical tourism industry because the tourism sector is fully established and the city already possesses the right components to expand the medical sector: over 4,740 physicians speaking more than 40 languages, a strong private sector health infrastructure and ease of access.

Laila Al Jassmi, CEO of Health Policy & Strategy Sector for the Dubai Health Authority, shared her insights below regarding the new medical tourism initiatives. The DHA has been working on these programs for a long period of time, and with the 2011-2013 Health Sector Strategy, it feels it is an opportune time to fully launch the initiatives and build on the strengths it already has.

What are the markets Dubai plans to target?

Dubai gets tourists from over 120 different nationalities, and a number of them are utilizing healthcare services in Dubai for various reasons. There is a considerable growth in the demand for these services by tourists from the GCC, North and East Africa and Central Asia as well as for certain health and wellness services by tourists from Europe and South Asia. The specialties that Dubai is well suited for medical tourists include, but are not limited to:

  • Knee replacement
  • Open-heart surgery and catheterization
  • Development of blood tests using radioactive materials, which is considered the first of its kind in the UAE
  • Vision correction by implantation of lenses and LASIK
  • The usage of latest technologies in treating congenital heart diseases in children without open-heart surgery
  • Surgery of colon congenital paralysis in children
  • Complex surgeries in pediatrics (e.g. removal of tumors)
  • Surgeries of urinary tract system malformation
  • Reconstructive surgeries for burns and accidents
  • Dental surgeries (especially post trauma) and cosmetic dental treatments
  • Elective cosmetics and aesthetics procedures

Dubai is working toward improving the health sector for the local population. How do you feel that this will benefit the medical tourism sector? Or is it mainly to stop locals from traveling for medical care?

We are working toward improving the health sector for the local population, and all of this work has a direct impact on medical tourism. Over 61 percent of Dubai healthcare facilities are accredited, including public hospitals, and the rest are in the process.


This is a mandate of our newly introduced health regulation system in order to improve the quality of our healthcare services. We are currently working on a number of strategic initiatives in this direction, among them being a certification or accreditation of the health facilities for the identified services for medical tourism.

In regards to locals traveling for medical care, most of our residents seek care in Dubai itself, considering the utilization rates in both public and private facilities. In some cases, expatriates prefer to seek care at home, and the reasons could vary from utilizing cheaper services to combining a holiday back home or abroad with a minor procedure.


For some services, we are yet to establish the right service mix and for some complicated procedures, the ability to deliver this treatment does not exist at the moment, given that Dubai and GCC are such small catchments to justify the volumes needed to deliver certain services.


But we believe we are getting there, particularly with pediatrics, oncology and orthopedics.

What strategies are in place to improve the local healthcare sector?

  1. Better planning for the future – We are identifying service gaps and working closely with the private sector on how to fill these gaps to make sure the people of Dubai have access to a full range of services close to home. A key step in this direction was the completion in 2009 of a detailed survey of 5,000 households in Dubai covering questions such as utilization, spending, health status etc.

    This was the first time ever such a survey was conducted in the UAE, and it was done by international standards of the World Bank and World Health Organization. Results will be analyzed and shared over the coming couple of years. A particular emphasis was placed on UAE Nationals, of whom 2,500 households were interviewed to understand their needs and preferences. All this will help us plan better for the future.

  2. Stricter regulation of healthcare providers – Licensing standards are being upgraded to improve quality assurance over health professionals, facilities and insurers.  Some of this involves gradually raising standards over time; some of it involves better measures to identify problems and respond to consumers’ complaints.

  3. Improved ways of sharing information – A key element of our strategy is to standardize the way providers, insurers and the government exchange and share medical information.  A key aspect of this is to protect the privacy and confidentiality of patient records and avoid fraud and abuse.

    At the same time, we recognize that standardization of benefits providers is needed in order to reduce the need for multiple information systems that serve different audiences like patients, operational tasks, insurers and the DHA itself. We also aim to publish information on volumes and quality across health facilities in Dubai, thus enabling patients to go anywhere to make an informed decision.

Since the prices for treatment in Dubai are not low or in some cases are more expensive than the competing countries, are there any plans to adjust pricing for medical tourists in order to attract a wider audience?

We don’t believe this is right. In Dubai itself, there are various facilities that offer the same services at different prices and their services are targeted at different market segments. Also, we do not intend to compete with “low cost” destinations for medical tourism.


Most visitors who take advantage of medical services in Dubai are here because they can benefit from an enjoyable environment in which to recuperate before returning home. This shows the close relationship between the “tourism” and “medical” aspects, an area which we are committed to developing further.

The Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi was developed as part of the medical tourism initiative for Abu Dhabi. Are there other hospital systems that Dubai is developing relationships with to build new facilities in the Dubai Healthcare City?

Abu Dhabi’s initiatives are promising. In Dubai, we have a considerable focus on private sector participation. There has been a significant shift in the share of the private sector in Dubai given our focus to encourage and initiate healthcare investment.


Private sector’s share of outpatient services has increased from 64 percent in 2005 to 71 percent in 2010, while the share of inpatient services has seen a considerable shift from 35 percent in 2005 to 55 percent in 2010. Dubai Healthcare City is a one of a kind dedicated cluster of health facilities offering a number of specialized, high quality inpatient and outpatient care.


Within Dubai, of course, there are a number of established hospital networks providing affordable and specialized care. We have seen the set of Saudi German Hospital, InterHealth Canada and Rashid Hospital’s Trauma Center, and the Al Zahra Hospital should also open soon.


We also have a specialized, world-class pediatric facility under construction, Al Jalila Hospital, along with a number of other health investments that have been announced or are in the pipeline.

What infrastructure developments are being made to support Dubai’s medical tourism program?

Dubai already has the infrastructure it needs to develop medical tourism – airports, a wide network that connects over 120 countries, roads, ports and hotels. We also have the right climate for investment, and talented health professionals are always looking for opportunities to live and work in Dubai.


DHA is investing in an EMR system for its public hospital and has already launched EMRAM rating with support of HIMMS USA to improve the health information system in the hospital. This is a contribution toward DHA’s future initiative of introducing the Dubai Electronic Health Record, which will support the flow of information between the healthcare providers in the Emirates.