Abu Dhabi is vying to become a world-class destination for medical tourism

Why medical tourism is the next focus here.

On a historical level, people have always travelled in order to get the best medical care they can. Harking right back to the ancient Greeks, who made pilgrimages to visit the healing sanctuary of Asklepios, the practice of seeking treatment in another location is nothing new.

In recent years, however, as access to the world has opened up, the concept of travelling to foreign destinations for healthcare has continued to expand our horizons of what medicine can offer.

Whether patients are seeking cheaper treatment, better quality of care or access to a particular therapy not offered where they live, we’ve never been more clued up about our health and the lengths we’ll go to in order to achieve it.

In fact, it’s such a popular trend that the concept of medical tourism is on the rise, and Abu Dhabi is stepping up in a bid to become an outstanding treatment destination.

Healthcare gone global 

“Medical tourism is when patients seek healthcare outside of their country or residence,” explains Dr Mishal Al Kasimi, CEO of Capital Health. “It’s becoming an important sector for so many reasons, and there are three factors as to why people tend to seek medical care outside their region or country.

“The first is that the country you’re in might not have the treatment or service you need. It also might be a factor of cheaper costs or quality.”

With its infinite vaults of information, the internet has played a large part in the development of medical tourism as a real economic sector, as well as connecting its users to more possibilities in terms of healthcare.

“As the world has become more connected and people better informed, travelling abroad for medical treatment has become easier,” notes Dr Fahed Al Marzooqi, a member of the executive team at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi. “[It’s] now within reach of a larger segment of the world’s population than ever before.”

Knowledge is one thing, but it’s also that today’s patients are becoming more discerning, according to Dr Mishal.

“The thing that’s new is that the patient likes to ask questions,” he says. “Patients want to have autonomy and take control. We know that, and we like that. We want them to take control of their care – we will advise them as experts around their questions and their own personal needs.”

Worlds apart

So what are the key factors driving patients to choose Abu Dhabi as their treatment destination of choice?

It’s that we’re speaking their language, says Dr Fahed: “We help our patients overcome the language barrier thanks to our patient ambassadors, and [our] medical interpreters speak a range of languages to ensure that patients properly understand what is being communicated to them.”

With a vibrant expat community, you’ll hear different languages every day in the UAE, from English to Russian, Hindi and Tagalog – and that’s a huge benefit that the country has over other destinations.

“We have people in healthcare that speak every single language from every corner of this world,” Dr Mishal agrees. “As a tourist, that’s what you’re looking for. Geographically, we’re also in the middle of everything and we’re accessible to everywhere.”

A central location and language are definite plus points, but it’s also about branding. With many Abu Dhabi hospitals and clinics linked to renowned institutions of excellence abroad, reputation is a key driver.

“Reputation is one of the most important factors that plays into the decision of where to seek treatment,” asserts Dr Fahed. “If a patient knows that a particular hospital is the best at treating their condition, they will naturally prefer it and make a greater effort to be treated there.”

Dr Mishal agrees: “We have the highest standards in Abu Dhabi for our medical facilities and our physicians – I think that gives us credibility in the mind of the patient. But in this part of the world, it’s too early for us to say we’re number one. Affiliating with medical institutes that have provided world-class care for years gives us an advantage.

“I think we’re going into a brand-led age,” he continues. “It’s no longer enough that hospitals are hospitals – patients are starting to recognise brands and ratings. People want to go to a place where they feel the care will be high standard, and the price needs to be right.”

Hospital(ity)

While the concept of medical tourism has traditionally referred to the practice of travelling for treatment, a shift has been seen in the sector in recent years – and that’s to put tourism back into the equation.

“When looking at medical tourism, it’s important to focus on the entire patient experience from the moment they arrive at the airport, [throughout] their treatment and up to the moment they return home,” agrees Dr Fahed. “The UAE already has a highly developed tourism sector and world-class facilities for visitors, [making] the country an attractive destination for international patients.”

This is a plan that Abu Dhabi will be putting into motion in the coming years. With recent announcements demonstrating a shift towards the sector, medical tourism here will combine entertainment, leisure and healthcare.

With a goal of offering world-class services in areas including cardiology, oncology, bariatrics and ophthalmology, the drive aims to link patients with hospitals and hospitality, with a focus on transparency and quality.

For Dr Mishal, this collaborative approach is a welcome shift: “We’ve learned from previous examples of medical tourism. The fact of the matter is that if one sector works alone, it will not be successful. It’s not about focusing on the medical side – you can’t forget about the tourism, the safety of a place and the accommodation.”

Occupational hazards

While the future looks bright for Abu Dhabi as a medical tourism destination, there are some potential roadblocks to consider – and one of them is making sure growth is sustained and manageable.

“We have seen sustained growth in the number of international patients we treat each year,” Dr Fahed notes. “While the majority of our international patients have come from the GCC and MENA regions due to their proximity, our physicians have treated patients from more than 70 other countries.

“As we continue to grow and expand our service offerings, it is important that we serve as many patients as possible. If people are suffering in their home country and we have the ability to treat them, we welcome that opportunity to expand our reach to international patients beyond the borders of the UAE.”

However, if medical tourism takes off in a big way and growth booms in the sector, it could spell trouble for current residents if we don’t adapt immediately.

“There’s always one thing we’re afraid of, and that’s that demand will outstrip supply,” admits Dr Mishal. “Obviously, we have physicians and facilities now, but that’s about meeting internal demands. If medical tourism is successful here, then that’s good news, but it can be trouble. You can overuse your facilities and your manpower, and we need a system to track that.

“I believe that Abu Dhabi will be at the elite front of medical tourism within the next ten years,” Dr Mishal adds.

“We already have a great infrastructure, which is key. This sector is only going to grow, and once consumers understand they can get their procedures in a place that’s close to home, safe and with a high standard of care, we will see changes.”

WORDS Camille Hogg

Source: Abu Dhabi World