Health Matters in Qatar

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Recent news of the imminent opening of Hamad Medical City – a three-hospital complex re-purposing the 2006 Asian Games’ Athlete’s Village in Doha – was welcomed by many in Qatar’s public and private health services.

Indeed, extra, capacity is something health planners and professionals have been after for some time, with the country’s hospitals and clinics facing growing demand ­– both from demographics and national policy decisions.

Faced with one of the fastest growing populations in the world, alongside a government pledge to provide “health for all”, Qatar has much work to do when it comes to investing in health.

The private sector is playing a key part in this new expansion too, with this role set to come much closer to centre stage in the years ahead, as the new, National Insurance Scheme rolls out. A more competitive – and cost efficient – health sector should result, if private providers can fully take up the challenge and target those areas where the public schemes do not often reach.

Growing Needs

QNB Group figures show average annual population growth of 15.5% for the 2004-2009 period, on the back of hydrocarbons development. They forecast 7.3% growth for the 2014-2016 period on the back of work surrounding the 2022 World Cup. Indeed, by June 2014, the population had reached 2.15m.

In order to tackle this growing demand, the government has instituted a major overhaul of the health system, as well as the insurance sector. Under the new scheme, basic health needs for Qatari nationals – around 13.5% of the total population, according to the QNB data – are being covered by the state, via Seha, the public provider for the National Health Insurance Company (NHIC). Meanwhile, the employers of non-Qatari residents will have to pay health insurance premiums to Seha for their employees, starting with white collar workers in 1Q15 and then blue collar workers by the end of 2015. Visitors get accident and emergency cover, on possession of a health card, which can be purchased on arrival.

Complicating this are several issues – primarily the adequacy of the medical infrastructure itself and its ability to handle what will be a universal health care system.

On this issue, the National Health planners have been working hard. In the overall strategy there is a clear move towards boosting primary care – which takes a lot of the pressure off hospitals – and preventive care, with the National Preventive Committee organising awareness programmes to combat growing menaces, such as diabetes and cardiac-related illnesses.

There has also been a major investment in physical infrastructure. The country’s principal public health care provider, the Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC), is currently rolling out its Facilities Master Plan, which includes the development of Hamad Bin Khalifa Medical City (HBKMC).

HMC has opened three new hospitals in recent years – Wakra, the Cuban Hospital, and the Heart Hospital. Hamad General Hospital is also seeing an expanded operating theatre block under construction, while the Women’s Hospital is seeing its neonatal intensive care unit expanded. Additionally, a wide range of tertiary care facilities is being either constructed or expanded, from a new communicable diseases hospital to a cancer care and research centre.

At the same time, the Primary Health Care Corporation (PHCC), the independent, government owned outfit looking after that end of the health service, has been busy implementing the National Primary Health Care Strategy, 2013-2018. Under this, 17 new health centres are to be opened, nationwide, in addition to the 21 already established. Two of the new centres have been opened this year so far – at Al Karaana and Al Ghwairya – with five more scheduled to open in 2015.

With basic health cover essentially provided by Seha, the private sector has been largely confined to providing additional, non-basic cover, along with services that Seha may contract out to specialist private facilities. This has led to some disappointment among insurers, who were hoping that the new scheme would allow them to offer policies in competition with the National health Insurance scheme.

Yet despite this, the scheme does give patients the ability to choose the provider, public or private, who will treat them – potentially opening up further opportunities for private health care outfits.

Another area of potential private sector growth will be in the human resources side of health provision.

HMC is hiring some 3,000 new staff for its three new hospitals, with a surge in demand for nurses, doctors, specialists, administrators and many other professionals underlying the health care reforms. Training and developing these staff will also be a major area for investment, with the private sector likely to be a prominent provider of this.

“There is… a growing demand for more primary and sub-acute care,” Dr. Hanan Al Kuwari, HMC Managing Director, recently told OBG. “Private sector investment in these areas will help alleviate some of this demand, which is being handled by acute care hospitals. More capacity is also needed in the areas of skilled nursing facilities, psychotherapy, physiotherapy and related services.”

Private sector providers may therefore have to think outside the box – and the basic care mainstream that Seha provides – in approaching the Qatari market. The potential is certainly there for major dividends, in a country with such high population growth alongside high and rising incomes. Qatar is, after all, the richest nation, per capita, in the world. It could one day be one of the healthiest.

 

<p>---This original article from OBG originally appeared in Qatar's The Edge magazine, November 2014 issue.

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