A More Medical Middle East?

As the price of healthcare rises, more people in the United States and around the globe are opting to seek medical treatment and care in countries other than their own.  The high cost of certain procedures, lack of coverage by insurance providers, or lack of speedy access to elective procedures has driven patients from the United States, Canada, and Europe to countries such as India, Singapore, Costa Rica, Hungary, Thailand, Poland, Czech Republic, and Latvia to seek high quality, low-cost healthcare.

Similarly, the Middle East and Gulf countries contribute a large number of outbound medical tourists to Europe, Asia and the U.S.  A recent article from the New York Times found that roughly 7,000 patients a year from the United Arab Emirates travel abroad for medical care. One figure has patients from the UAE spending about $2 billion annually on medical travel.

In a recent interview with Medical Tourism Magazine, Medical Attaché for the Saudi Arabian Embassy in the United States and Canada Suliman M. Alshuaibi stated that, on average, about 250 to 300 patients are being treated at various U.S. hospitals. Many Qataris often prefer to seek treatment in Germany, Czech Republic, and Thailand (Qatari arrivals in Thailand reached 22,341 in 2010). But in an effort to save costs and also generate more revenue, many countries in the MENA region are building new medical facilities and upgrading older ones. 

Arab countries seeking to attract more medical tourists should look to Thailand as a model.  A BBC report from 2012 found that medical tourism in Thailand is growing at a yearly rate of 16% and that foreign medical services are projected to make 100 billion baht by 2015. Bangkok’s Bumrungrad International Hospital is a prime example of Thailand’s success in attracting medical tourists. For instance, it contains a kitchen that prepares halal meals, employs 80 Arabic translators, and three resident Arabic speaking doctors to accommodate patients from the MENA region.

In terms of attracting medical tourists to the Arab world, countries like Jordan and Egypt boast high numbers of medical tourists from within the region.  The recent upheavals in Syria, Egypt and other countries affected by the Arab Spring have resulted in a change in patient demographics in Jordan.  While Jordan had hoped to increase the amount of medical tourists in 2012, the Kingdom has instead been overwhelmed by a large influx of casualties of conflicts from surrounding countries, with the largest numbers coming from Syria and Libya. About 20,000 Libyans received medical care in Jordanian hospitals during the civil war in that country, with the Libyan government agreeing to absorb the cost of treatment.

Countries in the Gulf region are also pursuing aggressive strategies to attract inbound medical tourists.  Bahrain has invested $1.6 billion to construct the Dilmunia Health Island.  The complex, which will be built on an artificial island, will include health and wellness facilities as well as residential, leisure, and commercial developments (including a “Grand Canal” for recreational use).

Architectural mock-up of the Celeveland Clinic in Abu Dhabi

Architectural mock-up of the Celeveland Clinic in Abu Dhabi

Dubai wants to increase the number of medical tourists visiting the Emirate.  The Dubai Health Authority has estimated that the number of medical tourists in Dubai is increasing at a rate of 10-15 percent per year. Approximately 15 percent of the patients at Dubai Healthcare City are medical tourists. Abu Dhabi is currently partnered with the Cleveland Clinic in the construction of a new medical facility on Sowwah Island. The $1.9 billion hospital is being built and will be owned by Mubadala (the investment arm of the Abu Dhabi government) and will use the Cleveland Clinic as the operator.

Even with these developments in the Gulf, nations in the MENA region attempting to attract foreign patients will face a number of challenges.  The new facilities that are currently under construction in the Gulf will have to compete with well-established and reputed institutions in Europe and Asia.  Hospital administrators in the MENA region will have to come up compelling campaigns to convince patients to seek treatment in the Gulf over other attractive locales such as Thailand and Singapore.  Furthermore, the current upheavals in the region will also pose a challenge in trying to attract visitors from outside the MENA region.