Qatar: Research on the rise

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On April 3, 2011, Qatar officially launched the National Health Strategy (NHS) 2011-16, the government’s plan to upgrade and improve the country’s health care sector. Based on principles originally outlined in National Vision 2030, Qatar’s long-term development programme, the NHS has the potential to bring about substantial changes to the sector.

In addition to improving services at home, the government hopes the NHS will help to turn Qatar into a centre for medical research in the Gulf. This is not a new objective – the state has been working to improve its medical research facilities for almost two decades now, as part of a broader research programme. Still, the NHS is the most comprehensive and ambitious version of this plan that the nation has yet seen.

The NHS is the latest in a long line of health development plans that have included a medical research component. The main vehicle for investing in this segment is the Qatar Foundation (QF), a government-funded non-profit organisation that is involved in education, research and community development projects in the country. Since 1995 the foundation has taken the lead on a number of major research projects, including the Qatar National Research Fund, the RAND Qatar Policy Institute, the Qatar Science and Technology Park, and the Qatar Computing Research Centre.

The QF is in the process of developing a major medical research cluster on the outskirts of Doha, the first phase of which is already in place. In 2002 Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar (WCMC-Q) opened its doors in Education City, a QF development that houses a number of educational institutions, including branch campuses of a handful of leading international research universities. A joint partnership between US-based Cornell University and the QF, WCMC-Q offers medical degrees and a variety of nursing and health-related training programmes in a 31,000-sq-metre facility.

“The Qatar Foundation, by attracting international universities to the country, has positioned Qatar as a centre for local and international talent development,” Dr Hanan Al Kuwari, the managing director of the Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC), told OBG.

Carrying out medical research is central to WCMC-Q’s mandate. The institution is currently in the middle of implementing a five-year plan to build research capacity, including the development of five core facilities that can be used by researchers to obtain preliminary data for grant applications, as well as for carrying out projects. These core facilities include, among other things, a genomics laboratory, microscopy equipment and a vivarium.

According to Dr Javaid Sheikh, the college’s dean, WCMC-Q has so far received 33 research grants from the Qatar National Research Fund, a member of the QF that supports original research to advance knowledge and education. Major projects currently under way include a large-scale study of diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome, as well as a smaller-scale investigation into infectious diseases and epidemiology. These projects relate to current public health issues in Qatar and the larger GCC region.

Medical research in Qatar will receive a major boost when the Sidra Medical and Research Centre begins operations next year. Launched in 2004 with an endowment of $7.9bn from the QF, Sidra is expected to be a cornerstone of the country’s health care sector. Facilities will include a 400-bed teaching hospital (expandable to 550 beds) with a focus on comprehensive care for women and children, as well as a large-scale, forward-funded research programme. Initial undertakings will focus on diabetes, cancer, epidemiology and feto-maternal health.

The overlapping research areas between Sidra and WCMC-Q are no accident – the two institutions are located adjacent to each other and will share facilities and collaborate on projects. Additionally, medical students at WCMC-Q will benefit from on-the-job training at the hospital, and doctors employed at Sidra could potentially teach or lecture at the school.

This relationship is important to the college, where clinical placement, in addition to teaching and research, is a central objective. According to Sheikh, WCMC-WQ already enjoys a strong relationship with HMC, its primary partner, and is expanding its ties with Sidra. The two medical centres will likewise look to work together and to develop complementary research agendas.

Once Sidra is operational, it will employ around 5000 people, including doctors, nurses, technical staff, biomedical researchers, administrators and support staff. Only 5-10% of the nation’s existing health care workforce is Qatari, a proportion that the government would like to increase as time goes on. In the meantime attracting highly qualified foreign medical professionals to work at Sidra and other facilities is an important part of the NHS. As a first step in this direction, the centre is working to establish professional connections and joint research projects with scientists at similar facilities in Europe, North America and Asia.

At the same time, the government intends to boost Qatar’s domestic human capital from the ground up, with plans to expand scientific education at the country’s primary, secondary and tertiary schools. The goal is to familiarise students with major research concepts early on. In the long run, the government hopes that locals will make up the majority of the Qatar’s growing research workforce.

The nursing school at the University of Calgary – Qatar, where faculty is Canadian and some 23% of students are Qatari, is a good example of international partnerships working to develop the labour pool with a focus on national talent. According to Dr Carolyn Byrne, the dean and CEO, the university has a strong relationship with HMC for clinical placements for students. The university is also host to research projects, and has been granted some $2m for these programmes.

Given the facilities already in place and those on the way, Qatar looks to be making steady progress towards its ambition of becoming a regional centre for medical research. In addition, the country’s health care system is likely to benefit as local educational institutions train tomorrow’s medical professionals, with these developments helping to keep Qataris – and the wider economy – in good health.

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