Qatar is taking health care to a new level, going beyond merely providing medical services to its people and moving towards positioning the country as a centre of research and development, a move that could bolster the health of the economy as well as the nation.
One of the cornerstones of this policy is the Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP), which was officially opened on March 16. A project of the Qatar Foundation (QF), QSTP is part of the larger Qatar Education City, being developed as a key component of the country's programme of expanding the skills resources of the community and laying the foundations for a knowledge-based economy.
According to Tidu Maini, QSTP's executive chairman, the centre is part of a unique approach to accelerating research "in a nation where education and health care are the centerpiece of a clear national strategy". QSTP is an engine that would drive forward applied research and technology development in Qatar, he said at the park's opening.
Just how quickly that engine is shifting into top gear can be witnessed from a series of new initiatives launched over the past few months intended to strengthen Qatar's role in health research.
In mid-March the board of a new company, Virgin Health Bank QSTP, met for the first time in Doha. The company, a partnership between the QSTP and the UK's Virgin Health Bank, was established in early March with the aim of collecting, processing and storing stem cells from the umbilical-cord blood of newborn infants.
The company will build an advanced processing and cryogenic storage facility for the collected stem cells, the first of its kind in the world, and will work with the QSTP and other research institutions to develop stem cell therapies. Umbilical cord-blood stem cell transplants are increasingly being used in preference to bone marrow for conditions such as leukaemia and thalassemia, both common in the region.
Another plank in this platform was the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the QF and General Electric (GE) on March 17, thus creating a partnership to work together on a range of health-care business and research initiatives.
The objective of the joint venture, which will operate out of the QSTP, will be to develop and deliver next-generation health-care technologies and build local research and development capabilities to meet regional and global healthcare needs, according to a statement issued by GE.
One of the elements covered by the MoU is the establishment of a jointly funded venture to finance research and development projects, especially in the fields of digital x-ray technology and molecular imaging.
Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned, the head of the QF, said the partnership was a significant achievement for Qatar in its quest to become a leader in the fields of scientific research and health.
"Our work together to research and develop innovative solutions in medical technology is an essential element of Qatar's drive to create one of the most exciting clusters of scientific expertise in the world today," she said.
That cluster will expand further in the second half of this year with the opening of the Qatar Robotic Surgery Centre at QSTP, which will provide training to local, regional and overseas surgeons in the use of robotic technology. With a similar training unit to be operated by the Hamad Medical Corporation, which will also use robotics for surgical procedures, Qatar will gain a cutting edge tool in its campaign to broaden the skills base of its medical sector.
Becoming a leader in targeted medical research is core to Qatar's strategy for building a knowledge-based economy as well as improving medical services, Maini said on November 17 when announcing the project.
"The Robotic Surgery Centre is an ambitious but achievable project that will make Qatar a global medical innovator, while delivering real health benefits for the local community," he said.
While the recent focus may have been on medical research, there has been no slowing down in efforts to boost health services in Qatar. On March 18, the health minister, Sheikha Ghalia bint Mohammed Al Thani, said the government was committed to launching one new hospital every year until 2011 at the Hamad Medical City, the state-backed medical complex being built on the site of the athlete's village used during the 2006 Asian Games.
"The city will include a paediatric hospital and a neurology hospital," the minister said in an interview with local media. "The Women's Hospital will be shifted to the city and its present facility will be turned over as an orthopaedic hospital. By 2011, the Hamad Medical City will be a reality."
The minister also said that Qatar's health sector had not been affected by the global economic crisis, and that in fact it was benefitting from the downturn affecting other countries.
While there had been postponements or cancellations of medical projects elsewhere in the region, there had been no scaling back of Qatar's budgetary expenditure on health, she said. With the programme of expanding the health-care sector through the opening of new facilities, Qatar was having no difficulty in attracting medical personnel.