Attracting patients: Eyeing a stronger role in the medical tourism segment

As it seeks to become a centre for medical tourism, Dubai is entering into a mature and competitive market, but also one with positive growth trends and increasing demand. According to consulting firm McKinsey & Co, medical tourism was estimated to be a $100bn global industry in 2012, and many countries throughout the world have registered double-digit growth in the sector in recent years. Revenues from medical tourism in the UAE hit $1.69bn in 2012, up 6.5% from 2011. Even though the UAE and Dubai are not yet competing at the same level as top markets, the emirate has a number of advantages on which to build. It is already a popular tourist destination with one of the busiest airports in the world. There is a strong private health care industry that is increasingly meeting international standards for care and service. To successfully compete on the world stage, the government and private health care providers will need to work closely together to identify and promote a space in the market where Dubai can stand out.

Head Count

With so many foreign residents, millions of business and holiday travellers, and a highly privatised health care system, it is difficult to get a true count of how many medical tourists come to Dubai each year. Without figures for the entire emirate, using data from Dubai Health Care City (DHCC) can serve as a good proxy. DHCC reported that roughly 20% of its patients are non-residents and somewhere between 10% and 15% are medical tourists. An estimated 550,000 people received treatment at DHCC in 2012, which would mean there were between 55,000 and 82,000 medical tourists that year. These numbers would indicate estimated growth of 10-15% from 2011. Going forward, DHCC is targeting a more modest growth rate of 7.2% per year through 2015.

Although counting the exact number of medical tourists is difficult, identifying where they come from is not nearly as challenging. Most come from within the region – which is in line with worldwide data that show geographic proximity is a major factor when people are deciding to travel abroad for treatment – and there are no indications that there will be dramatic shifts in this trend in the short term.


Promoting specialisations that are in demand globally is one way for the emirate to become a top destination. Cosmetic and relatively simple procedures such as LASIK eye surgery, hair transplants and weight management treatments have grown in popularity, and it is estimated that they can cost anywhere from 30% to 50% less than in the US. However, because the overall costs for these treatments are less expensive, the savings may only be enough to attract regional patients.


While Dubai does posses some advantages over other destinations throughout the world, the medical tourism strategy has been somewhat less unified than in other countries that have developed a top-down approach because of the high level of private ownership in the industry. This has gradually begun to change, however, and the government has taken the lead in bringing all of the public and private entities together to identify and develop unified strategies and marketing campaigns.

“Dubai’s health care segment has seen a recent unification, illustrated by a trip to promote medical tourism in Moscow in which the DHA, DHCC and private hospitals promoted Dubai collectively as opposed to as individual entities,” Hayder Zubaidy, the CEO of the Canadian Specialist Hospital, told OBG. “What’s more, the emirate has already successfully marketed itself as a brand, and the medical tourism can build on that existing recognition and reputation – an advantage that few other markets share,” he added.

The main focus of medical tourism is on the treatments and procedures being performed, but having partners that specialise in the tourism side of the sector are equally as important, especially when it comes to transportation and accommodation infrastructure. Luckily, from a planning point of view, Emirates Airlines is owned by the government and officials have not been shy about using its capacity and reach to promote prioritised industries. While many of the hotels in Dubai are privately held, the government also owns several properties under the Emirates banner, which should make coordination easier. Once strategies are developed and implemented, there is no doubt that the already robust tourism sector should become even more of a selling point for potential health visitors of any budget or taste.

Far Reach

 Marwan Abedin, CEO of DHCC, said the city is initiating efforts to create partnerships that reach beyond private industry and even the UAE: “Medical tourism is one of our key focus areas. DHCC along with its stakeholders has identified the pieces of the puzzle that will help formulate the medical tourism strategy from health care regulations to service industry partnerships and logistics. We are also looking at collaborating with tourism authorities abroad.”

Easing Entry

Until 2013, obtaining permission to stay in Dubai for treatment for longer than the standard 30-day tourist visa was difficult and a serious constraint on the sector. However, the government announced a new visa programme in late 2012 to address this issue. Now, hospitals are allowed to sponsor patients from abroad for a three-month visa that can be renewed twice, for a total possible stay for up to nine months. While this is unlikely to impact demand for many of the cosmetic or minimally invasive procedures, it could open the door for more complex treatments with longer recovery times or those that require follow-up treatment. The programme will not mark a complete lifting of restrictions, though, as hospitals are limited to an annual quota of visas that they can apply for with the government. The process is not without some red tape either, and each patient must obtain specific medical and immigration documents to apply for the extended entry visa.

Reducing Flight

 Dubai is not only a medical tourism destination, it is also a source of patients who leave the emirate for their medical treatment. Many well-paid expatriates return to their home country for medical care, while some wealthy Emiratis choose to leave the country for certain procedures as well. By modernising the health care facilities to compete with regional and international destinations, the emirate can, in effect, increase its net medical revenues simply by retaining patients already living in the UAE and treating them in the same facilities that are drawing tourists. This is a difficult phenomenon to measure, but the number of Emiratis treated in Dubai facilities 2012 was up 12% from the previous year, a sign that the advances in care and new facilities are helping to convince people to stay in Dubai for treatment. Private investments, a more unified marketing strategy and strong government support have brought medical tourism in Dubai out of its infancy and provided measured growth so far. Many challenges lie ahead, however, and Dubai must continue to use DHCC and other modern centres to develop services, prices and total tourist packages that can help solidify its place in the crowded medical tourism market.


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The Report: Dubai 2014

Health chapter from The Report: Dubai 2014

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