As public health care facilities come under increasing strain from Qatar's growing population, the move to private institutions will rely on the development of the insurance market.
The Gulf as a whole is considered one of the most under-insured regions in the world, representing less than 1% of earnings in the global insurance industry. Plans for private healthcare insurance in Qatar have been a long time coming and efforts at implementation in the past have been derailed as the high cost of medical treatment had made medical insurance a low return proposition. This appears to be turning around as more private health care facilities come on line to meet increasing demand and is insurance for expatriates becomes obligatory.
At a press conference last week, the National Health Authority's (NHA) CEO, Dr Michael Walsh, outlined the authority's plans to set up a separate corporation to oversee the primary healthcare sector.
Public dissatisfaction with overcrowding and delays to hospital appointments are behind calls for the transfer of the supervision of health centres from Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC) to the National Health Authority (NHA). While some feel shifting the management of the health centres away from HMC might negatively affect the quality of care they provide, the move is widely seen as a way of alleviating pressure on Hamad Medical Hospital.
Growing discontent with public healthcare is also pushing some patients towards the private sector, but many simply cannot afford the high cost of private medical care.
Walsh also addressed this issue at the press conference, making reference to plans for the financing of healthcare, ostensibly through the introduction of long-talked-about, mandatory healthcare insurance. This would ease the burden on HMC and help distribute patients more evenly across the public and private sectors. It is hoped that mandatory insurance coverage will ease crowding at HMC facilities by allowing expatriate workers and low-income families to received treatment in the private institutions.
More recently it was announced that the NHA had submitted a draft of a compulsory health insurance plan for expatriates and their families to the state cabinet to be implemented after its approval by the council of ministers.
The plan is thought not to cover dental care, cardiac surgery, maternity costs or the cost of transplant operations.
Most private businesses remain unfazed by the possible introduction of mandatory insurance for their employees, although it hasn't been explicitly stated whether businesses would be legally obliged to pay the premiums of their workforce.
"Medical insurance is a requirement of a civilized society and we will be looking at this as a contribution to the community," Mahmoud al-Nasir, Technical Manager at Doha Insurance told OBG. "For insurance companies the success of medical insurance depends on large numbers of people being insured - which is why it is important that medical insurance be made compulsory."
The healthcare sector in Qatar has seen increasing investment. This year's budget saw increases in spending across the board. The state budget for social services and healthcare in 2006/07 rose 18.2% to QR3.8bn.
Among the activities to expand private sector health care, the Al Ahli Hospital, so far the largest private hospital, with over 200 beds, has recently opened. At the same time, Qatar Foundation has designs on a state of the art medical and research facility. Based at Education City, the facility will be the primary teaching hospital of the Weill Cornell Medical College-Qatar, the offshore campus of the US based medical school. The new teaching hospital will also benefit from the establishment of an enormous $8bn endowment, understood to be the largest cash endowment of a hospital and research center anywhere in the world.
The hospital, which is expected to see an annual research budget of $146m, will have 350 beds and will constitute an investment of $900m.
However, the private sector in Qatar is still relatively nascent, made up of a number of small clinics while the larger projects have yet to properly come on-line. Qatar Foundation's state-of-the-art facilities at the new teaching hospital are not expected to be ready before 2010 and although the Al Ahli Hosptial saw a soft-opening in September 2004, the facility is still not yet fully functional. Medicare, the hospital's owners and operators, are expecting to hold the grand opening later in the year.