Beyond unholy consumption and artificial beaches: what's it going to take for Dubai to become a city of medical tourism?

Published August 19th, 2014 - 03:55 GMT

A hospitable city, artificial beaches, some of the best hotels 
in the world and affordable treatment for a range of ailments is what new Dubai is now about. In an exclusive interview, Dr Ramadan Ibrahim, Director of Health Regulation at the Dubai Health Authority and Head of Dubai’s medical tourism programme, tells Asma Ali Zain that these are reasons enough for people to see the city as a premier medical tourism destination. 

From September, the first medical tourism package — that will be valid for only two weeks — will be rolled out for tourists and residents alike in Dubai. From VIP packages to the most affordable ones, the packages will cover wellness and seven areas of treatment such as orthopaedic and sports medicine, plastic surgery, ophthalmology, dental procedures, dermatology and preventive health check-ups.

What’s more, visas, arrivals, hospital/hotels stays for patients and their families will also be taken care of.

What amount has been fixed for a medical tourism package and how many hospitals have committed to be part of the initiative?

We did a survey that targeted hotels, hospitals and clinics in Dubai. The list was around 300 facilities including hospitals, clinics and hotels. We shortlisted those as per our criteria and found that only 40 are fit to become dedicated tourism centres. The reason being our strict criteria since we are guaranteeing the best packages for patients based on transparency, pricing and treatment offered. We will build on these 40 facilities and of course any facilities wishing to join can do so by fulfilling the criteria. A couple of hospitals, clinics, centres and hotels have offered packages ... so we have a variety of them.

What kind of treatment does the first package include?

We have initially targeted seven specialties. For the first two years it will be wellness and checkups. In the Middle East we do not have wellness packages handled by trained professionals and this is what we are planning to push here. We will also target the whole of Middle East by launching these packages.

Today, the patient goes to the hospital for a checkup and he has to wait a long time since the doctor is busy seeing patients with a range of ailments. We want to have specialised wellness centres so the patient comes there rather than going to a normal facility and hospital.

How do residents avail of the medical tourism packages?

The package will have different targets — from inside the country and outside. From here, of course it will be for everyone depending on what package they will choose and what insurance will cover them and the facilities they are willing to get treated at. For example, if a patient has chosen a facility that his insurance provider does not cover, then he will not be able to use that offered package but he will be able to purchase the same through a travel agency.

Currently we are negotiating with Emirates Airlines, Dnata, Dubai Immigration and Tourism department ... on how to plan an inhouse package for residents. We are also planning packages for people such as CEOs, DGs and VIPs in general. The packages will target different populations. The packages will be very similar to airline bookings ... the earlier you make a booking, the better deal you get.

Are there any discount packages for residents?

Currently we are in the design phase and we are planning to launch some packages in October when we will have a health regulation conference for the first time in the Middle East. A special fare package will be available for people who will attend that conference.

Is there any minimum amount fixed for the packages?

As I mentioned, we are in the design phase because fixing the amount and the prices is not an easy issue. We have to work with insurance and hospitals ... we cannot fix prices from our side. Our duty is to regulate the whole initiative.

What about visas for long term patients?

As medical tourists here, patients cannot avail of long-term treatments. We have decided on a two-week duration for treatment and that is the maximum length any patient will be able to stay in the Dubai for treatment. Long-term treatment is different and it will not be included in the package. We are targeting only the short procedures that can attract tourism.

How are you going to keep checks on overstaying?

We have initiated the medical tourism office and structure. This office has the duty of overlooking all the activities in Dubai. We will be communicating with all facilities and buyers. They will put in the rules and regulations and guidelines; they will communicate regarding pricing and packaging; they will maintain how the packages are offered during the year; and they will also work with branding and media coverage of all events. One package starts in September, and in October, we will launch more. Our target is that all those packages should be ready by end of the year.

What does wellness mean?

Wellness defines lifestyle diseases. The patient will come to a centre for physical comfort or physiotherapy, rehabilitation for weight loss treatment etc. These lifestyles issues are not being targeted in Dubai properly. For example, patients go to a dietician who tells them go to a diabetesdoctor who will send them to some other doctor ... so by having proper wellness centres in one place, it will help patients.

But why would people come from all over the world to Dubai for two weeks, for example, to lose weight?

As an initial strategy we are not pushing people to come to Dubai. People are visiting Dubai anyway to spend two weeks in hotels and on vacations.

Our focus is on the highest number of nationalities already visiting Dubai such as from Russia and the Gulf countries. They can visit Dubai and use our facilities for wellness. So in a way, instead of families coming and paying for two weeks for a hotel and stay, you will have the same package plus medical treatment.

The top number of nationalities visiting Dubai are Russians, second are Gulf countries and then some European countries according to statistics from the Dubai Statistics Centre. We have some from the American continent but the vast majority is definitely from Russia and then Gulf countries.

How are ratings for hospitals going to help medical tourism?

I will compare these ratings to those of hotels because when a customer walks into a place, he pays attention to star ratings. We are currently designing a system to attract tourism rather than patients. A patient who goes to the hospital will check whether the hospital will be able to offer treatment ... but a tourist checks more than that such as a reception, translator, transport, hotel accommodation, etc. The ratings will definitely help raise the bar in Dubai to have luxury medical facilities.

Will government hospitals also offer these packages?

Yes, definitely. We are working on a few packages for the government hospitals and we will announce them shortly, such as VIP packages. We are not going to force government hospitals to be part of this initiative but this does help in internal competition between private and government hospitals which is a healthy thing. But they are already willing.

There will be a difference in pricing of packages between what the government will offer and the private sector.

Are private hospitals calculating costs for services required from your side such as transport, translators, etc?

No, we are not pressing anyone. Majority of them already have these facilities because they need them on a daily basis. We are going to motivate them more. In tourism, you cannot force people.

How many medical tourists have visited Dubai over the past three to five years?

According to our statistics, 120,000 people have come so far for medical tourism. In 2006, it was 50,000 medical tourists ... the numbers have doubled now.

By 2016, our target is to attract 170,000 medical tourists. By 2020, we will have around 500,000. This is the minimum number we are targeting but we believe that once the system is ready, we will have more numbers. We are also putting in measures to have the exact numbers.

How much money has Dubai raised through medical tourism?

The medical tourism policy was not approved at that time and no figures were as such recorded for reinvestment that happened. The policy has been approved just this year but from previous studies and market research and the way we are going to introduce this policy is that we need to invest more money at the beginning of the year rather than counting the return investment. Why? Because we need to make the world know that Dubai is located here.

Expenditure on communication and strategy will cost a lot in the beginning. The government has given us full support to spend on all the resources we need, whether it is financial, human or technology.

We are currently negotiating with companies who will be offering such services and once we finalise those companies, we will now the exact amount we will spend on this sector.

What is the projection for the number of professionals needed in the coming years?

We are targeting seven specialties and we are going to work on these to make sure that they are available in Dubai in good numbers. We are going to advertise for them, we are going to facilitate licensing issues and we are going to help them to work with their own patients. We are going to help them with the immigration and tourism departments. Once we get the support of those services, I think it will flourish more.

Is there a limit to hiring of professionals?

We have not put a limit to the hiring currently because this is a first time to impose such a policy in Dubai. We do not have enough statistics in the region to compare to but we will be closely monitoring in the first two years — once we launch the packages — to see how the numbers are growing. We will be changing the policy and regulations accordingly. This applies to hiring of professionals and targeting tourists.

Are visiting doctors encouraged to meet the expected shortage of medical professionals?

This is part of our plan. On the website we have launched, they will have options. We will advertise for each doctor. We will also set up an online appointment system in future.

Are any statistics available for the number of professionals to be hired for next, say, two years?

There is a study carried out by the DHA ... we are waiting for the results to see what are the projections and numbers of professionals until 2020.

It will also give an idea about the need for the specialties that can be made available for the investors and patients.

What new hospitals are expected for meet the future needs?

Medical tourism will never flourish unless the area around it is developed. If we don’t have well equipped hospitals and designs; a transparent licensing system; and a well built insurance system, we will never establish a good medical tourism system in Dubai.

I believe that building well-equipped hospitals and residences in Dubai will give a different view to the tourist.

What are the challenges you have already seen and overcome?

Culture change is the first challenge ... not for patients but for investors and centres. We have told them that this will resolve by itself in future but it will take time to convince them that is why the number is so low in the beginning and I believe that when they see us flourishing, they will come by themselves.

The second challenge we have almost overcome is to work as a multidisciplinary team between government and private sector under one umbrella.


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