Qatar places health high on the agenda

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Health was one of the big winners in Qatar’s 2016 budget, at a time when many other areas of the economy saw spending reined in due to lower energy revenues.

Facing its first fiscal deficit in 15 years, the Qatari government moved to cap expenditure at QR202.5bn ($55.6bn) in its latest budget, which came into force at the beginning of the year. However, while total outlays were reduced by 7.3%, funding for health rose by more than 33% to QR20.9bn ($5.7bn), equivalent to around 10% of total spending.

While capital investment in primary health care services remains high on the agenda, the budget also gave added weight to the training of medical professionals and research and development.

Major projects moving ahead

Infrastructure is a key component of projected spending, with more than QR850m ($233m) earmarked for the construction of five new health centres – namely, a cancer treatment hospital, a metabolic centre, a neurosciences facility, a diagnostic and treatment centre, and a hospital for tertiary care. Expansions to existing hospitals are also being funded.

The projects come one year after Hamad Medical Corporation, Qatar’s main health care provider, unveiled its master plan for medical services provision. The organisation aims to more than double the number of specialist clinics operating under its system and increase operating theatre capacity by 100%.

Momentum is building, with progress evident across a raft of major projects, led by new facilities at Hamad Bin Khalifa Medical City. Several of the initiatives are slated to open in December, including a new rehabilitation facility, a communicable disease hospital, an ambulatory care centre and a women’s wellness and research centre.

Increased funding was also made available for work on the long-awaited $7.9bn Sidra Medical and Research Centre, which is under development in Education City in Al Rayyan. In addition to specialising in patient care for women and children, the centre will have a two-fold role as a biomedical research facility and teaching hospital.

Meeting growing needs

The decision to ring-fence health spending in this year’s budget has not come as a surprise, given the government’s continued pledge to make medical service provision a priority.

In a statement issued just before the budget was delivered, Abdullah bin Khalid Al Qahtani, then-minister of public health, said he expected planned projects to be rolled out on schedule.

“There is a clear long-term strategy for the health sector,” he said in mid-December. “A plan has been developed along with approved financial allocations.”

Addressing skills gaps

At the heart of the government’s long-term strategy are plans to deepen the pool of health care workers and broaden the base of Qatari medical professionals. Additional funding has been set aside in the budget for training to help achieve these aims.

The opening in September 2015 of a College of Medicine at Qatar University will play a key role in supporting the national drive to boost recruitment in the medical field. Some 93 students are currently enrolled in the six-year medical school programme, 53% of whom are Qatari nationals, figures show.

In mid-January the university announced the upgrade of its Department of Health Sciences to a College of Health Sciences and extend the range of courses available. Sheikha Asma Al Thani, dean of the college, believes that upgrading health studies represents a significant step forward in service provision.

“The launch of the new College of Health Sciences will contribute to advancing Qatar University’s health programmes and fulfilling Qatar’s needs for highly-qualified health care providers and well-trained practitioners, in line with the country’s ambitions [to become] a knowledge-based economy,” she told media earlier this year.

In late February 2016 the university approved a health cluster, merging the colleges of pharmacy, medicine and health sciences under a single umbrella, to be led by Egon Toft, vice-president for medical education.

Demand for nursing professionals in Qatar is high and set to continue rising as new facilities open, with some estimates putting the medium-term requirements for staff at over 5000.

To this end, the University of Calgary in Qatar (UCQ), which provides nursing education for both Qatari nationals and foreign students, is working to meet some of this demand. According to Kim Critchley, dean and CEO of UCQ, interest in nursing as a career choice is on the rise.

“The student population has more than doubled in the past three years,” Critchley told OBG. “Leadership positions in nursing are now seen as viable career paths.”

UCQ currently has around 550 enrolled students, including more than 90 Qatari citizens. Critchley added that Qatar could see training opportunities for nursing professionals expand as growing demand for specialised care continues apace.

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