New private sector initiatives aim to position the kingdom as a health tourism destination

The health care services market has been growing in Bahrain, and is expected to reach $1.1bn by 2018. According to the Ministry of Health (MoH), the country also has untapped potential as a destination for health tourism within the region, and is therefore open to new investments that look to grow this sector while also addressing the needs of Bahrain’s own population. Along with new public ventures, there is space for existing private sector health services to align with government efforts to expand medical tourism.

Market Potential

Were Bahrain able to capture even a small slice of the GCC market for medical tourism, the economic benefits could be substantial. According to one study conducted by the Global Wellness Institute, an Indian firm, residents of the UAE alone spent $4bn a year on health and wellness tourism in 2013. The same research suggests that, globally, luxury wellness tourism is a $439bn industry.

With an increase in the overall number of patients in Bahrain, not only would health tourism generate more revenue, it would also enhance skills and thus attract more medical professionals to work in Bahrain. In the US, for example, open-heart surgeons prefer to conduct over 200 surgeries a year to maintain their skills. Yet given economies of scale, it is hard for most surgeons operating in the GCC to maintain this level without the additional patients provided by medical tourism. For this reason, medical tourism in Bahrain would also hold many benefits for the local population.

In 2014, work continued on a new hospital designed specifically to appeal to medical tourists. Jointly developed by Al Areen Holding Company and Avenue Ventures, the $12m American International Specialised Hospital will consist of 10 private rooms, two luxury wards and two royal wards, and will focus on cosmetic and other treatments commonly sought by medical tourists. In all, the facility is projected to add 1000 jobs to the economy when complete.

Island Project

A more long-term health tourism project is the Dilmunia Health Island, a $1.6bn development being built on reclaimed land offshore from Muharraq. Led by the Ithmaar Development Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of local Islamic retail bank Ithmaar Bank, the project as currently envisioned will offer housing and commercial space focused on health and well-being, including three boutique hotels and two sets of serviced apartments. Though the project was first announced in 2012, a $45m deal was signed in 2014 to build residential apartments on the site.

The core of the project, however, will be the Dilmunia Health District, the 17% of the island reserved for alternative treatments, wellness programmes and rehabilitative services. These 165,000 sq metres are to become a regional wellness centre, with many of the medical staff living on the islands. The district will also help meet rising demand for alternative health care and geriatric care on the domestic market. According to Alpen Capital, a Dubai-based investment bank, the number of people in the GCC aged 65 and over is expected to climb from 1.2m in 2015 to 14.2m by 2050.

Key Partner

At present, most of Bahrain’s medical tourists come from Saudi Arabia, whose government has been a key investor in its health care sector. In 2011, Saudi officials pledged $266m toward the King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Medical City managed by Al Habib Medical Group, which runs 14 medical facilities in the GCC. The city’s pilot project is the 8000-sq-metre Arabian Gulf University Medical Centre, whose advanced research facilities focus on health issues across the GCC. The centre hosts units for radiography, digital imaging, laboratories and surgery, and its staff includes members of the university’s faculty of medicine.

Approval of these new projects is part of a concerted effort by the MoH to attract further investment in new standalone private health facilities. An MoH study completed in 2014 noted a need for many new facilities, including a long-stay maternity hospital, rehabilitation centres and diabetic care units as strategic health priorities. It also called for the development of more private health care facilities outside of Manama.

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The Report: Bahrain 2015

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