Abu Dhabi’s government bodies in charge of tourism and health have teamed up to actively promote the emirate’s medical tourism sector. In October 2018 the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi) signed a memorandum of understanding with the Medical Tourism Association, an industry leading global non-profit, to help position the emirate as a top destination in the segment. Building on a trend towards international private participation in the health care sector since the launch of the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, the strategy intends to differentiate the emirate in the global medical tourism marketplace by focusing on specialist care in areas such as ophthalmology, cardiology and diabetes.
In April 2017 DCT Abu Dhabi partnered with the Department of Health (DoH), formerly known as the Health Authority – Abu Dhabi, to establish a network to develop and promote the medical tourism segment. Later that year, the DoH oversaw the creation of the Abu Dhabi Medical Tourism Network (MTN), which brought together stakeholders from sectors relevant to medical tourism, including tourism, transport, immigration and health care. The intention is for the MTN to provide for all the necessities for the patient’s journey, including travel, hospital bookings, translation services and aftercare.
Steps taken by the MTN in 2017 included working with the Department of Immigration to streamline visa processes, and the DoH to support medical tourism product accreditation. Since August 2017 hospitals participating in the MTN have been able to apply for medical tourism visas on behalf of their patients. The visa allows the holder to stay for 90 days, although this period can be extended in the case of a special request from the patient’s hospital.
DCT Abu Dhabi has committed to pursuing a broad spectrum of strategies to develop and promote the segment, including creating specialised medical tourism packages and products through cooperation with key medical and travel sector stakeholders, as well as participating in exhibitions related to the industry.
The segment is also likely to benefit from a certain amount of promotional cross-pollination with the emirate’s meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions segment. The signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Abu Dhabi Convention Bureau, the Emirates Medical Association and the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Company in 2016, has resulted in the emirate securing seven international medical events between 2018 and 2021.
Medical Tourism Today
Despite the segment not being extensively promoted by the government until recently, the 2016 Medical Tourism Index ranked Abu Dhabi 25th out of 41 of the world’s top medical tourism destinations. Carried out by the nonprofit International Healthcare Research Centre, the Medical Tourism Index is the result of independent qualitative and quantitative research to assess the attractiveness of medical tourism destinations. The emirate’s highest score was achieved in the quality of facilities and services category, where it placed 16th. Its lowest score was in the medical tourism industry category, which accounts for the extent of the sector’s development, where it placed 31st.
Speaking at the launch of the DCT Abu Dhabi’s 2017 annual report in March 2018, Ali Hassan Al Shaiba, acting executive director of marketing and communications at DCT Abu Dhabi, stated that Abu Dhabi’s medical tourism value proposition will be based on targeting specific areas of medical treatment that are unavailable elsewhere in the region, citing examples including ophthalmology, cardiology and diabetes. “While we can also offer generic care, our strategy is very much to use specialisation to differentiate the emirate,” he told OBG.
Asma Al Mannaei, director of the health care quality division at the DoH, said in 2017 that the emirate’s overall strategy in the segment would specifically target the Russian, Indian, Chinese and GCC markets. While an emphasis on further specialisation and international expertise is likely to place Abu Dhabi towards the higher end of the medical tourism market, Al Mannaei indicated that packages would be offered at three tiers of price points.
Medical tourists spend considerable amounts both inside and outside treatment facilities. According to research by the DoH, the average medical tourist in the emirate spends $800-$2500 per day and stays for an average of seven to 10 days. DCT Abu Dhabi hopes the rapidly growing appeal of the emirate’s leisure tourism offering will prove a further incentive to prospective medical tourists, with plans in place to encourage visitors to lengthen their stays through the offer of packages for other attractions.
Abu Dhabi’s differentiated approach is necessitated by its position in one of the fastest-growing regions for medical tourism. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Lebanon are all looking to attract customers with treatment packages as rising global medical costs drive up demand for alternative destinations for specialist care. According to the “2018 Willis Towers Watson’s Global Medical Trends Pulse Survey Report”, medical inflation is expected to rise from 6.8% in 2017 to 7.2% in 2018.
The range of available specialist clinics in Abu Dhabi has expanded considerably since 2006, when the government launched its Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 development plan. Seeking to safeguard the economy against external factors by investing in the non-oil sectors of the economy, the long-term strategy outlines a greater role for the private sector in the creation of premium health care assets. The intervening years have seen a trend towards increasing private-sector participation, with major international partnerships and domestic investments expanding the number of hospitals and clinics providing international-standard care in a range of treatment areas. Between 2011 and 2015 the percentage of inpatient cases handled at government facilities fell from 65% to 52%, while the percentage of outpatient cases fell from 40% to 31%. As of August 2017, a total of 10 new privately owned hospitals were under construction in the emirate.
Some of the facilities most important to the emirate’s medical tourism segment have emerged from partnerships formed with private international health care providers, in keeping with the targets laid out in Vision 2030. For example, the result of a deal between the Mubadala Investment Company and the US-based Cleveland Clinic Foundation, the Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi (CCAD) is a 364-bed, multidisciplinary and physician-led hospital. The agreement for the joint venture was signed in 2006 and the clinic opened in May 2015.
The CCAD has five specialist institutes designated as centres of excellence, specialising in heart and vascular, neurological, digestive disease, eye and respiratory, and critical care. With the rest of its specialist institutes included, more than 30 medical and surgical sub-specialties are represented at the clinic.
Another facility well positioned to serve the emirate’s specialised medical tourism strategy is Capital Health, a health care group launched in late 2017. Capital Health’s first two projects in the emirate will be a 166-bed specialised rehabilitation hospital and Health Shield Medical Centre, a multi-specialty facility in downtown Abu Dhabi City. Speaking to local media in November 2017, Mishal Al Kasimi, CEO of Capital Health, said the specialised rehabilitation hospital aims to “modernise rehabilitative medicine across the Middle East” by deploying the latest bionic and robotic health care technologies in what will be the UAE’s first acute, sub-acute and long-term rehabilitation facility with outpatient capabilities.
Although predating the Vision 2030 development plan, the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre (ICLDC), which was opened in 2006 by Mubadala in partnership with Imperial College London, is another important asset in the emirate’s medical tourism offering. A one-stop outpatient centre specialising in diabetes treatment, research, training and public health awareness, the ICLDC has developed a multidisciplinary approach to endocrinology.
Another Mubadala company, Healthpoint is a multi-specialty, integrated practice hospital located in Zayed Sports City. Healthpoint provides full-cycle care covering inpatient, outpatient and rehabilitative processes. As part of 21 clinical services, it contains three centres of clinical expertise: musculoskeletal, bariatric and metabolic, and dentistry.
As an integrated and rapidly expanding leisure tourism destination with a growing number of international best-practice medical facilities, Abu Dhabi is well positioned to become an important regional medical tourism player. The move towards increased private participation set in motion by Vision 2030 has put the emirate in a good position to execute its proposed strategy on specialised treatment options.