Fighting fit? Health and healthcare in the GCC

The money and the will might be there, but with growing populations, unhealthy lifestyles and region-wide problems such as diabetes and obesity a cause for great concern, just how confident can we be in the Gulf’s healthcare sector?

According to the World Health Organisation, a typical man in the UAE will live to the age of 76, with women living even longer to 78 years old.

Not bad, you might think. Especially when the global average is 71.4 years old – 73.8 for women, 69.1 for men.

However, according to the UAE Men’s Health Alliance, a third of the country’s male population will suffer from a health ailment, while the WHO said in 2015 that nearly half of female UAE residents over 18 years old are obese. A separate report suggested that more than 60 per cent of all UAE citizens are considered to be an unhealthy weight, while more than 25 per cent were said to have diabetes – the second highest prevalence in the world.

The statistics aren’t much different elsewhere in the Gulf Cooperation Council.

A recent report by British medical journal The Lancet put Saudi Arabia third in the world in terms of ‘obesity and laziness’, contributing to 25 per cent of the population having diabetes.

Qatar was reported in 2013 as being the fifth most obese nation in the world, and in the same year 16 per cent of its adult population was diagnosed with diabetes. In Bahrain, cardiovascular diseases account for 32 per cent of all deaths, largely a result of 28.9 per of all males and 38.2 per cent of all females being classified as obese, and in Kuwait some 50 per cent of people over the age of 45 are believed to have diabetes.

Statistically, the chances are that either you or somebody you know is suffering with one of the region’s four major health issues: obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Such is their prevalence that the World Bank has claimed that by the year 2030, non-communicable diseases – largely made up of the ‘big four’ – will account for 87 per cent of all deaths in the GCC. The average for the other countries in the Middle East and North Africa is 81 per cent.

With numbers rising and concerns growing, governments have taken steps to address these issues.

The UAE’s Vision 2021 programme identifies healthcare as one of the key areas of focus for the government during the coming years.

Among its targets is the reduction of deaths from cardiovascular diseases from 297.6 per 100,000 people in 2012 to 158.2 in 2021. It also aims to reduce the prevalence of diabetes among people between the ages of 20 and 79 from 19.02 per cent (according to the International Diabetes Foundation, 2014) to 16.28 per cent by 2021.

Other targets include reducing the prevalence of obesity among children aged five to 17 from 13.17 per cent to 12 per cent, and reducing the number of deaths from cancer from 99 per 100,000 people to 64.2.

In order to hit these targets, various initiatives have been established. In May, the UAE’s Ministry of Health and Prevention announced that the country would introduce a smoking ban by the end of 2016, leading to the removal of designated smoking areas in all public places and limiting smoking to private buildings and homes.

Saudi Arabia followed suit in June, implementing laws that banned smoking in eight public areas including the vicinities of religious, educational, health, sports, cultural, social and charity institutions.

In Qatar, the minister of health, His Excellency Abdullah bin Khalid Al Qahtani, launched Sahtak Awalan (Your Health First) in 2012. The five-year multi-media campaign teaches the importance of lifestyle choices in the fight against diabetes, obesity and other non-communicable diseases.
It’s not just governments taking a lead. Private companies are also encouraging healthier lifestyles through CSR campaigns.

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Landmark Group’s Beat Diabetes initiative, for example, was launched in the UAE in 2009 to raise awareness of the disease and help people get active, eat healthily and join events in a bid to prevent or better manage the disease.

Following later expansion to Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and India, the campaign had reached an audience of six million people by 2015 through its various walks, testings, website, social media and programmes.

It all adds up to a healthcare environment that is developing, maturing, and being taken seriously across entire communities.

But what about the industry itself? Is it as strong as the sentiment behind all these initiatives, targets and ambitions?

Judging by a number of regular reports, the answer is a resounding yes.

Alpen Capital’s GCC Healthcare Industry Report, for example, states that the Gulf-wide market is projected to grow at a 12.1 per cent compound annual growth rate from an estimated $40.3bn in 2015 to $71.3bn in 2020. The key drivers behind this growth are expected to be an increase in population and the rising cost of treatment.

The largest of these markets will continue to be Saudi Arabia, forecast to reach $27.4bn in 2020, up 11 per cent from 2015, followed by the UAE at $19.5bn, having grown 12.7 per cent from 2015.

In Kuwait, the Oxford Business Group identified reformation of the emirate’s healthcare system as a key part of the government’s $102.9bn Kuwait Development Plan. At least eight hospitals and hospital extensions are already on the cards – each costing $1bn – while the Ministry of Public Works has allocated $4.2bn to build another nine hospitals. This would boost the number of beds available by 3,334 as well as creating 15,000 new jobs.

Healthcare is clearly a major focus for the government of Oman, too, with the Ministry of Health said to shoulder more than 80 per cent of the sultanate’s health expenditure. Mega projects such as the $1.5bn Sultan Qaboos Medical City in Muscat, the $1bn International Medical City in Salalah, and numerous hospital plans are proof of intent, with Oman’s Health Vision 2050 expected to generate many more projects in the coming years.

Digitisation is also becoming increasingly prevalent across the region, with GCC states thought to have spent $551m on IT services in 2015. Among the areas of improvement, highlighted by the Oxford Business Group, are electronic records, data centres, big data, care choices for chronic patients, better general patient care, monitoring of remote patients, automation for pharmacies, improved integration and more.

Another interesting development in the industry has been jobs.

In the UAE, with opportunities drying up in hospitality, oil and gas, and banking, demand for healthcare professionals on listings portal Monster.com rose by 12 per cent year-on-year in July.

This makes sense given the wave of new hospitals and hospital extensions across the emirate, and could lead to a greater focus on medical training within the region.

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health will certainly hope for a healthcare talent boom after it recently announced plans to nationalise parts of the sector, with the aim of employing 100,000 Saudis by 2030.

A report by the ministry showed that there were 81.532 doctors and dentists working in the country in 2015, of which 19,029 were Saudi – less than a quarter.

Overall, there are moves to improve the health of GCC nations in more ways than one –whether it’s physical health and wellbeing, the health of the job market, or the health of the healthcare industry itself.

Governments have allocated big budgets and ambitious targets to bolster the quality of care, private sector companies are raising awareness of major regional health issues and improved healthcare services are being built as demand continues to grow.

With different groups putting their best feet forward to boost the health of the GCC, it is up to us all to do the same. Healthcare in the region may not be perfect but it is improving, giving us a solid framework to get ourselves into the best shape possible.

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