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Medical tourism making a healthy return to UAE despite and because of COVID-19

Why is medical tourism making a comeback in the UAE, in the midst of COVID-19? How has the GCC as a whole been preparing for this important sector? Find out here

GCC governments’ national health strategies aim to increase their domestic healthcare capacity The Dubai Health Authority (DHA) said that in 2019 it achieved a 4% growth in “medical tourism” numbers, to 350,118 According to the Dubai Health Authority (DHA), more than 4 million PCR tests have been carried out across the UAE

The value of the medical tourism market is expected to grow to $28 billion by the end of 2024, with a compound annual growth rate of about 8.8% between 2018 and 2024.

The GCC was recently ranked as ‘medical tourism capital of the world’ topped by the UAE, on a new global index of leading destinations to seek treatment.

GCC medical tourism rankings from the Medical Tourism Association Index 2020-2021 is as follows:

1.UAE 

2.Oman 

3.Bahrain 

4.Saudi Arabia 

5.Kuwait  

While the entire GCC is gearing up for this sector to grow, a lot of effort has gone into reversing prior years’ tourism trends from the region to primarily Asia but also the world. 

According to the International Medical Travel Journal, global medical tourism spends on foreign treatment for GCC citizens amounts to more than $2 billion per year. This high level of demand has resulted in an increase in local facilities offering new options for citizens, residents, and tourists alike.

And the UAE is one country leading that effort with already good results this year, despite travel restrictions resulting from COVID-19.  

Read: Why Dubai is a Safe Bet for Medical Tourists

Asian Medical tourism 

According to the Middle East Institute, it is estimated that around 650 patients in Kuwait were sent abroad each month in 2018.

Several Asian countries have been actively promoting medical tourism and welcoming patients from overseas. Thailand has prided itself as a premier medical hub known for its affordable quality healthcare, and it is estimated that as many as 58% of the total inbound medical tourists are from the Middle East

It is estimated that the average cost per case ranges from $125,000 to $340,000. According to the latest research by the World Travel and Tourism Council, Thailand is among the top five destinations of inbound medical tourism spending globally.

Singapore alone has at least 15 hospitals that cater to the needs of medical tourists. 

The GCC is reversing the trend

GCC governments’ national health strategies aim to increase their domestic healthcare capacity. 

For example, Saudi Arabia has set its sights on transforming its healthcare by developing domestic Health Graduate Programs and building the $270 million King Abdullah Medical City, which provides opportunities for further healthcare investment. 

Oman aims to build “qualified national talents and capabilities in health, scientific research, and innovation.”

And Bahrain aspires to provide all Bahraini nationals and residents with access to quality healthcare through “developing, attracting and retaining health-care talent.”

Bahrain’s Dilmunia Health District and Oman’s International Medical City are examples of such projects that are underway. 

Meanwhile, the UAE has itself become a medical destination, with inbound patients from its neighboring countries and even from Russia and China thanks to projects such as the Dubai Healthcare City. 

Read: The GCC has been named the “medical tourism capital of the world”

UAE medical tourism in focus

Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Medical Tourism Association (MTA), a non-profit organization that aids healthcare providers and governments in creating successful medical tourist programs. Both entities will partner to promote Abu Dhabi as a medical tourist destination in markets such as Russia, China, and the GCC, with a focus on specialty areas like cardiology, oncology, and executive screenings.  

The UAE Ministry of Health plans to have 34 indigenous pharmaceutical manufacturing factories by 2020. The market value of UAE’s pharmaceutical industry is projected to go up from 9.5 billion Dirhams ($2.6 bn) at present to 25 billion Dirhams ($6.84 bn) by 2025. 

The Dubai Health Authority (DHA) said that in 2019 it achieved a 4% growth in “medical tourism” numbers, to 350,118.  

34% of these ‘medical tourists’ were from Asia compared to 30% in 2018.

The number from the UAE and other Gulf states was 28% compared to 33% in 2018.

17% are from Europe compared to 16% in 2018, while 10% are now from Africa.

10% are from the Americas and elsewhere, the latter two categories combined in 2018 at 21%.

Dubai has set an ambitious target for 2021 of 500,000 medical tourists, half from within the UAE, and the other from elsewhere.

During the first half of 2020, DHA issued 3,397 licenses to health facilities in Dubai, while 45 new health facilities, a hospital, and 10 general and specialized medical clinics were inaugurated during the period.

Dubai, which reopened its borders to international tourists on July 7, offers an early case study for reviving medical tourism.

An important underlying enabler of this resurgent demand is the broader UAE’s commitment to testing.

According to the Dubai Health Authority (DHA), more than 4 million PCR tests have been carried out across the UAE since the start of the pandemic, some 950,000 in Dubai alone – placing the UAE fifth globally in terms of testing per capita as of early August.

A report by commercial real estate services firm Colliers International, published in late July, identified medical and health tourism as key to rebooting the broader tourism industry in certain MENA countries.

The report recommends that tour and hotel operators in major cities seek affiliations with local hospitals in order to provide a complete package to tourists. It also argues that the sector needs to expand beyond “traditional” medical tourism and into health and wellness, as well as emerging services related to lifestyle disease and rejuvenation.