Economic View

On medical tourism and specialised care in Dubai

What source markets comprise the largest shares of medical tourists to Dubai?

DAVID HADLEY: There are three fundamentals of medical tourism. First, is a lack of access: if you do not have access to health care, then you will need to travel abroad for it. Second, and most importantly, is cost: you will travel if a certain procedure is too expensive in your home country. Third, is quality: certain high-end procedures may be performed better abroad relative to your country.

In the case of Dubai, the largest source market for medical tourism is the other Emirates, people coming from Sharjah, Ajman and Ras Al Khaimah instead of patients flying in on a medical tourism visa. An important point to note here is that the UAE’s outbound medical tourism has reversed, with fewer Emiratis now going abroad for health care. Instead, they are coming to the outstanding facilities in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. 

Travellers from the wider GCC and MENA regions also make up a notable portion of Dubai’s medical tourism. However, the problem with attracting medical tourists from the high-income countries of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar is that they all have their own fantastic facilities. In the case of many European countries, the UAE does not outcompete considerably on price and offers a similar level of quality. Medical tourists generally travel to places with good quality at a price much cheaper than Europe, such as India or Thailand. 

Russia and China are growing source markets. In the past Russians struggled to get visas for the UAE but this has changed, so we expect to see their medical tourism numbers rise. Still, China represents the largest opportunity of all, as there are now 350,000 Chinese people living in the UAE.

As specialist treatment coverage in the UAE has increased significantly over the last decade, do gaps in specialised care still remain?

HADLEY: Across medical tourism and specialist surgeries, the coverage gaps are small. Medical tourism has traditionally focused on less intensive and quick surgeries that can be combined with shorter stays, such as cosmetic surgery. However, we are increasingly seeing more specialised demands from both medical tourists and the local market. 

The UAE and Dubai have higher-than-average coverage in comparison to the region’s comprehensive cancer care. We have seen notable upticks in knee and hip surgery, stroke treatments and trauma care. In the case of highly specialised operations such as transplants and minimal invasive cardiac surgery, these have been offered in the local market for quite some time. 

One could argue that the very acute care areas for specific older groups are less covered here; however, this is a function of demographics. Only 1% of the UAE’s population is currently over the age of 65, thus the volume of elder care and the need for end-of-life services will increase in the coming decades as citizens age.

How are new medical technologies being leveraged in areas such as precision medicine and diagnosis?

HADLEY: The innovation in health care will be phenomenal going forward – we are going to see a lot more precision medicine through gene mapping. Once genes are mapped, patients will be prescribed medication and treatment plans specific to them. This is going to revolutionise health care worldwide, as instead of taking a generic drug that may or may not work for you, you will be given a specific drug that works for your gene profile. 

Furthermore, there are many technological innovations that are making health care more efficient and allowing for remote diagnosis. We are seeing an increase in Skype consultations, as well as deployment of algorithms in health care data and a push for further electronic recordkeeping. Home care is another growing trend, as people want to be discharged from the hospital as soon as possible and continue receiving care at home. Collectively, precision medicine, microbiomes, digitalisation and home care are all important shifts in health care that will undoubtedly remake the sector during this exciting period of innovation.