Oman moves to broaden health care base

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The opening of a multimillion-dollar cardiac centre outside of Muscat in May marked the latest milestone in Oman’s drive to broaden the scope of its health care sector.

On the back of heavy investment channelled into services and facilities through a series of state development plans, the sector has expanded rapidly in recent decades. The government is also looking to increase the role played by the private sector in health care provision, particularly in preventative care and the treatment of lifestyle-related diseases.

Meeting demand

Efforts to develop the sultanate’s national health care system have seen the number of hospitals in Oman increase from just two in 1970 to 66 in 2013, including seven privately owned facilities, according to the Ministry of Health (MoH). In the eight years to 2013, the number of hospital beds rose from 5270 to 6178.

The opening of the OR24m ($62.12m) Salalah Heart Centre in May − a 16,444-sq-metre centre located in the south-western governorate of Dhofar − signals good news for residents of Oman’s largest province, who will no longer have to make the 1000-km trip to Muscat for treatment.  

The 56-bed facility housing X-ray and MRI scanning equipment, alongside laboratories for diagnostics and clinical chemistry, and units for both paediatric and intensive care, will also take the strain off the capital’s Sultan Qaboos University Hospital and Royal Hospital.

Changing trends

Rising demand and shifting health care requirements are driving the expansion. Oman’s older population is growing, and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and obesity are on the rise.

The country’s changing demographics, together with other factors, such as rising incomes, are generating huge spending in health care. Funding for public health expenditure increased almost three-fold in the eight years to 2013 to reach OR593.7m ($1.54bn). Oman doubled spending on health care to OR1.29bn ($3.34bn) in the 2014 budget, while projects such as the $1bn International Medical City in Salalah and the $1.5bn Sultan Qaboos Medical City, west of Muscat, will play a key part in the sector’s expansion.

Oman is now targeting 10,000 new clinics over the next 35 years, in line with the country’s long-term strategy for the sector, Health Vision 2050.

Bringing businesses on board

The government is hoping that its plans will include the private sector becoming more involved in the provision of services. “We are keen to promote hospitals in the private sector,” Dr Sayyid Sultan bin Yarub Al Busaidy, adviser for health affairs at the MoH, told local press in late 2014. “Any plans that can add momentum to the health sector’s progress are welcome. We want all small clinics to grow into hospitals.”

Private providers already have a decent foothold in Oman’s health care sector. A study released in 2014 found that almost half of patients treated at the country’s 11 private medical facilities were locals, even though Omanis qualify for free public health care.

Government employees form a key client group, often showing themselves willing to pay higher premiums for health care services. In April 2015 the Ministry of Education in Oman’s Sharqiya governorate signed a deal to provide its employees with medical services at the private Starcare Sur Private Hospital.

One way to spur further development would be to outsource hard-pressed public services to private providers, according to John Clarke, director of Muscat Private Hospital. “What will move the private sector along now is to follow the UK model, where the National Health Service contracted out patient services with growing waiting times to the private sector,” Clarke told OBG. “That reduced the burden on the government to provide health care and developed the private sector’s competencies.”

Looking close to home

The scale of outward-bound medical tourism in Oman indicates another area for potential. Thousands of Omanis go abroad for medical treatment each year – 75,000 in 2013 alone travelled to Thailand, according to media reports – with some trips sponsored by the MoH, which provides financial support for citizens to receive treatments unavailable domestically.

“Instead of using this money to send citizens abroad for treatment, the MoH could use it more cost effectively to up-skill the private sector so that Omanis can get quality treatment here,” said Clarke.

A 2011 study in the Sultan Qaboos University Medical Journal found that “orthopaedic diseases” were the most common conditions for which Omanis sought treatment abroad, while tests for cancer and ensuing treatment also came near the top of the list. Oman’s public health system does not yet offer PET scans or CT scans. The provision of these two imaging technologies, which are considered crucial for the early detection of cancer, represents another niche that the private sector would be well placed to fill. 

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