Dubai focusing on medical tourism niche areas


With a globally strategic location served by two international airports and an expanding health care sector equipped with state-of-the-art equipment, Dubai looks set to surpass its targets for medical tourism. These factors were among those to impress judges at the International Medical Travel Journal (IMTJ) awards in June 2016, when Dubai won the “Highly Recommended Destination of the Year” award. However, in the global marketplace for medical treatments, Dubai faces some challenges in the years ahead to ensure it remains competitive in terms of price and quality.

DUBAI HEALTH EXPERIENCE: In accepting the IMTJ Award, Dr Laila Al Marzouqi, director of health regulation at Dubai Health Authority (DHA), outlined the city’s strengths as a medical tourism destination. “This is a testament that the medical services in the city are at a par with international standards,” said Al Marzouqi in a press release. She added that excellent medical and diagnostic facilities are underpinned by Dubai’s transport infrastructure, the availability of medical insurance and visas tailored to medical tourists. An electronic portal, the Dubai Health Experience ( has also been developed to help visitors plan their stay as well as their treatment options. In January 2016 Al Marzouqi told local press that Dubai had seen annual growth in medical tourism of 18% in 2015 and that the emirate could expect to attract more than 1m medical tourists annually by 2020, double the original target. In 2015, 630,831 medical tourists were treated in Dubai, according to DHA, of which 298,359 were foreigners mainly from Asia, the GCC and other MENA countries, accounting for nearly 46%t of the total. Al Marzouqi revealed that the top five sectors for medical tourism were aesthetics, dental, orthopaedic, wellness and fertility procedures.

MARKETING VISION: The emirate has made effective use of state-owned land to develop free zones in order to attract inward investment and international expertise. The development and current expansion of its health care free zones has typified this strategic approach to medical tourism. Launched in 2002 the Dubai Healthcare City (DHCC) free zone occupies two sites: phase one, the 4.1m-sq-foot campus at Oud Metha, and phase two, a 22m-square-foot development at Al Jadaf overlooking Dubai Creek. The focus for the second phase is on wellness, but it also continues to attract international investment in medical facilities that will serve medical tourists as well as the local community. In March 2016 Clemenceau Medical Centre was announced, a 110-bed hospital being developed at a cost of Dh400m ($108.9m) by Clemenceau Medical Network and Khanasaheb Investment. The hospital, which is due to open in 2018, will include six operating theatres, but will also employ multi-lingual patient coordinators trained to supervise admissions and consultations as well as travel arrangements. “The centre’s achievements resonate with DHCC’s priorities by developing key specialties – attracting trusted international health care expertise and planning for long-term success,” Bader Saeed Hareb, CEO of DHCC’s investment sector, said in a press release. “Steady growth is driving the free zone’s phase two expansion, supporting Dubai’s medical tourism portfolio and increasing the number of sustainable and patient-centric service models.” By the end of 2015, 94% of phase one’s buildings were occupied, but the availability of space at phase two leaves the door open for further investment by health care companies hoping to play a part in the development of Dubai’s medical tourism offering.

PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS: The desire to work hand-in-hand with private enterprise is also found among those running the emirate’s own medical facilities. “We are closely involved with the private sector; they are well aware of the medical tourism strategy and we work together to implement it,” Humaid Al Qatami, chairman of the board and director-general of DHA, told OBG. “In fact, every month we meet with private medical providers who are part of the medical tourism club and discuss a range of issues to foster the growth of the medical tourism initiative in the emirate.”

Those meetings also give private sector providers a chance to air their views on some of the challenges Dubai faces when competing with other medical tourism destinations. ”Society’s expectations require a closer partnership between the government and private sectors to ensure delivery of sustained strategies for access to medicines for all socio-economic levels in a community,” Andrew Miles, vice-president and general manager of the GCC at GSK, a global pharmaceutical company, told OBG.

PRICE COMPARISONS: While health care firms welcome the drive to grow medical tourism in principle, many industry experts believe Dubai faces some practical issues in creating a profitable business model for these services. “Dubai will be able to compete in medical tourism with other international locations if it becomes more cost-effective and it can offer more competitive accommodation for the patients’ families,” Akram Azmy, managing director of Beckman Coulter International, told OBG. “Right now you can travel to the UK and have surgery through the National Health Service at a cheaper price than in most GCC private hospitals,” he added.

This is echoed by David Hadley, CEO of Mediclinic Middle East, who points to the expense of building hospital facilities in the UAE. “It would be very difficult for the UAE to compete on price with lower-income countries such as India and Thailand,” Hadley told OBG. “Health care prices are essentially driven by salaries, which are directly reflective of the cost-of-living index of the given country. With the UAE being such a high-income country, it would not be feasible to match the prices on offer in lower-income countries.”

When it comes to patient perceptions of expertise and quality of care, the emirate must also compete with Western countries. However, Al Marzouqi said in a press release that “Dubai is competing on quality and patient experience, and the growth of medical tourism over the last few years reflects that Dubai’s high-quality health care is attractive for patients seeking to travel here for treatment.”

OUTBOUND MEDICAL TOURISM: Dubai’s own citizens also travel to seek medical treatment. According to DHA’s annual report for 2014, the authority paid for the treatment, travel and accommodation costs of 2717 patients and their relatives in 2014. The number of patients has increased since 2010 and the costs paid by DHA increased from Dh346m ($94.2m) in 2013 to Dh439m ($119.5m) in 2014. Of those selected for treatment abroad, 433 patients saw oncologists, 201 consulted brain surgeons and 199 a neurologist, 188 were treated by orthopaedic specialists and 161 visited cardiologists. As more specialist hospitals are built in Dubai and the emirate’s existing hospitals expand, DHA may be able to refer more of these cases to surgeons and physicians working in the emirate, and those specialists may also attract a number of overseas patients.

BROADER OFFERING: Although some patients will inevitably continue to seek specialist surgery in Europe and North America, some experts believe Dubai can continue to develop by offering elective surgery, cosmetic treatments and wellness packages. Ayman Mokhtar, former general manager of the Gulf Countries and Yemen for the global pharmaceutical company Sanofi, believes the emirate should focus on specialist treatments. “Dubai is already well positioned to attract medical tourism in niche areas such as weight management and cosmetic surgery, among others, and this should continue to grow further this year,” Mokhtar told OBG.

These niche markets are reflected in some of the clinics opening in 2015 in phase one of DHCC with new partners including the Dr Dana Diet Centre, London Sleep Centre and Dr Shyams Ayurveda Centre.

WELLNESS VILLAGE: In January 2016 a new development announced in DHCC’s phase two was described as the world’s largest wellness concept. The WorldCare Wellness Village will occupy 810,000 sq feet of built up area on a 900,000-sq-foot plot, anchored by a 100,000-sq-foot wellness centre surrounded by villas, apartments and rental units, supporting long-term stay for patients. The project is being developed by US-based WorldCare International and Dubai’s MAG Group. Raja Al Gurg, vice-chairperson and group CEO of Dubai Healthcare City Authority, said the focus in phase two would be on preventative care, which will improve well-being and reduce longer-term health care expenditure. “We are confident that phase two will drive wellness tourism together with medical tourism, boosting Dubai’s diversified economy,” Al Gurg said in a press release. “It will bring together unique wellness concepts and specialised services such as rehabilitation, counselling, sports medicine and elderly care for both residents and visitors.”

The wellness centre will focus on prevention and management of diseases such as obesity, hypertension and diabetes, and provide diagnostic services and two- to six-week programmes built around education and lifestyle change. More than 100 health care professionals are expected to work at the centre.

GROWTH DRIVERS: Although fitness programmes for people hoping to lose weight may appear to be on the opposite end of the medical-tourism spectrum from treatments offered by heart surgeons or oncologists, both types of intervention deal with medical problems common in the GCC. According to local investment bank Alpen Capital’s 2016 “GCC Healthcare Industry Report”, two of the most significant drivers of growth in the sector are an aging and growing population, and the high incidence of non-communicable diseases. The prevalence rates of lifestyle-related conditions such as obesity and diabetes in the GCC are among the highest in world, which suggests that many future medical and wellness tourists may be from neighbouring countries.


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