Special report: Why UAE has taken centre stage in the healthcare space
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Special report: Why UAE has taken centre stage in the healthcare space

Special report: Why UAE has taken centre stage in the healthcare space

The UAE has emerged as one of the world’s leading healthcare hubs and medical tourism destinations – here’s how it got there


The UAE’s prompt and focused response to restrict the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic and its ensuing successful vaccination programme – over 24.7 million doses have been administered to date – put the country and its healthcare sector in the global spotlight.

The UAE is the first Arab nation to manufacture a Covid-19 vaccine. Hayat-Vax is a result of a joint collaboration between Sinopharm and Abu Dhabi-based healthtech company, G42 Healthcare. These initiatives – lauded around the world – were underpinned by the objectives of the UAE Vision 2021 National Agenda: to achieve a world-class healthcare system that serves the needs of citizens and residents.

The UAE is well on its way to achieving this goal; with the public and private sectors working in tandem to fast track it. The UAE’s new Centennial 2071 plan, to position it as the best country in the world by 2071, will also power the country’s healthcare ambitions.

Dr Shamsheer Vayalil, chairman and MD, VPS Healthcare, says, “One of the key drivers of transformation to be the best country in the world, is the absolute criticality of having a healthy population with access to the highest standards of healthcare in the world. We all have witnessed how the pandemic placed healthcare at the forefront of human existence.”

The UAE’s rapid infrastructural development, strong regulatory framework to protect patients, growing focus on preventive care, advancements in patient care delivery, privatisation and digital transformation will play a key role in this process, as will increased spending from the public and private sector. The UAE government has allocated Dhs4.9bn (8.4 per cent of the total budget) to healthcare and community protection in the federal budget for 2022-2026.

Abbas Berdi, director, Deals Strategy, Healthcare & Pharmaceutical at PwC Middle East, says, “Investments in innovation, research, science and technology are key to the UAE’s strategic shift towards knowledge-based economic development. The country’s healthcare sector is a prime example of this. Owing to strategic investment from entities such as ADQ, Mubadala, Abu Dhabi’s Department of Health (DoH), MoHAP and the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) among many others, the UAE has in place the necessary infrastructure on which to develop a tech-enabled healthcare ecosystem across the region.

“With all parties in the ecosystem working together – from regulators, payers, providers, academia and investors – we can ensure we deliver quality healthcare to more people at a lower cost, and most importantly, improve patients’ lives.”

Setting an example 
The focus on quality healthcare across public and private medical institutions has helped the UAE claim its place among nations with the most world’s advanced healthcare ecosystems.

According to Joint Commission International (JCI), a US organisation that approves healthcare organisations and programmes, the UAE is the first country in the world to have more than 200 accredited health facilities, including hospitals, medical laboratories, specialised centres, primary health centres and home health facilities.

The UAE also has the most JCI-accredited hospitals in a single country outside the US, says David Boucher, group head of Service Excellence, Aster DM Healthcare.

The UAE’s debut in the World’s Best Hospitals 2022 Index has further acknowledged its profi le as a leading global healthcare hub. The index, compiled by Newsweek magazine and Statista, evaluates over 2,200 hospitals from 27 countries around the world. Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, positioned within the top 150 global hospitals, was named the UAE’s best hospital. The list also features other UAE hospitals, including two that are part of Aster DM Healthcare.

Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi is a part of Mubadala Health, which has been working with best-in-class partners to offer patients in the UAE high-quality care.

James Sibley, chief strategy and business development officer of Mubadala Health, says, “We have longstanding successful partnerships with established specialists such as Imperial College London and Cleveland Clinic Foundation.

“We are future-focused, partnering with companies that are advancing medicine. One example is our recently announced agreement with BioIntellisense for wearable tech to monitor patients’ vital signs from the comfort of their homes and detect problems as soon as they arise. We also actively work with government entities such as the DoH to support its efforts and understand its priorities as well as academic institutions to develop our home-grown research and innovation capabilities.”

Mubadala is focused on offering new treatments closer to home and reducing the need for a patient to travel abroad for treatment. This approach also underpins its strategy for growth.

Sibley says, “This growth plan involves investing in two things: firstly, our people; we insist on the right values and expertise as well as the highest medical accreditation standards. Secondly, an investment in new medical technologies, such as advanced diagnostics and cutting-edge technology that detect and treat early chronic and lifestyle diseases. Intervening when a patient is already ill is old school. We’re helping pioneer a new approach by identifying and stopping problems before they begin. This benefits the patient and reduces the financial burden on the wider healthcare system.”

Companies such as Yas Holding Group (YH) are contributing to the sector’s growth through innovation and acquisitions. In 2021, YH’s healthcare arm, GlobalOne Healthcare Holding, completed investments in, and the acquisition of, five complementary and market-leading healthcare value chain product and solution providers.

These include WellPharma Medical Solutions, Gulf Inject, Geltec Healthcare, and more recently, Al Ittihad Drug Store, a leading pharma distribution company. This has established GlobalOne Healthcare Holding as the third-largest medical distributor in the UAE. The company also expanded its strategic holding in Icelandic biopharma company Alvotech, to enhance access to biosimilar medicine in the region.

Ashraf Radwan, CEO of GlobalOne Healthcare, shares, “We’ve been rapidly expanding our business through a substantial investment programme over the last two years. We aim to accelerate our growth through future acquisitions, as well as investments in our existing operations. We will achieve this by continuing to be agile, innovative and progressive in all that we do.”

Foreign direct investment (FDI) into the healthcare sector is also rising with 100 per cent foreign ownership. According to Invest Emirates, the sector attracted FDI amounting to $784m between August 2016 and August 2021. The UAE’s growing reputation as an innovation hub is also attracting startups and entrepreneurs from across the world. Investments in areas like telehealth, virtual care, genomics and personalised medicine are testament to this, says Berdi.

He adds, “The Middle East is increasingly emerging as an alternative technology hub, attracting disruptive startups seeking to make a positive difference. Within sectors such as healthcare, the pandemic set in motion a new trajectory for many healthtech startups, particularly those nimble enough to respond to a world crisis that confused and broke traditional public healthcare systems.

“The UAE in particular is an ideal home for these healthcare disrupters, having created a culturally diverse startup ecosystem with a whole suite of incentives designed to encourage entrepreneurs to set up base here. Supported by factors such as increased public awareness of digital healthcare, strong health tech infrastructure, and mandates to ‘future-proof’ healthcare delivery, investors are keen to put money into the region’s digital healthcare startups.”

The UAE public and private sector is also investing heavily in clinical research and life sciences through collaborations and partnerships. The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority and Mubadala Investment Company have significant life sciences’ investments in the country and overseas. AstraZeneca and G42 Healthcare have collaborated to enhance clinical research and diagnostics frameworks in the country.

AstraZeneca recently launched the Accelerating Change Together (ACT) for Cancer Care coalition, with DoH, G42 Healthcare and other partners. The initiative aims to revolutionise how cancer is being diagnosed and treated for better patient outcomes globally.

G42 Healthcare has also been leveraging its experience in big data, cloud computing and its AI platforms to offer medical solutions that are personalised, preventive and  predictive.

Ashish Koshy, CEO, G42 Healthcare, says, “We have grown significantly in the last two years, building the Omics Centre of Excellence, the region’s largest and most technologically advanced Omics facility that is the backbone for the DoH’s Emirati Genome Program – the world’s most comprehensive population genomics initiative, as well as setting up the region’s first dedicated contract research organisation (IROS) for conducting clinical research with and for local populations. The impact of these on the UAE ecosystem is huge, as it will help build a more robust healthcare system in the country.

While interpreting large pools of genetic data via Emirati Genome Program will help us have a better understanding of the human body at a genetic level and help unlock better health outcomes for present and future generations of UAE citizens, conducting clinical research with and for local populations will increase the plausibility of bringing targeted therapeutics and treatments to the market.”

Many governmental and private scientific research institutions in the UAE are also involved in medical research such as the Dubai Science Park, the Unit of Medical Research of the Department of Health – Abu Dhabi, the Public Health Research Centre at NYU Abu Dhabi, Research Institute of Medical and Health Sciences at the University of Sharjah, Al Jalila Foundation and Mohammed Bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences (MBRU).

Al Jalila Foundation recently announced that is establishing the UAE’s first robotic biobank in partnership with MBRU and the DHA. An investment of Dhs17m will go towards building the facility, which will manage seven million human biological materials – the world’s largest in terms of sample capacity.

Burjeel Medical City (BMC), which has become the first European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) accredited cancer hospital in the UAE, has been recognised for its work in cancer research, with 29 papers published in international journals in 2021.

Banking on medical tourism
With the UAE gaining precedence for its world-class healthcare ecosystem, so has its popularity with visitors as a medical tourism destination. Medical tourism has grown to become a significant pillar of the UAE’s healthcare strategy. A report by Euromonitor International has forecast that the UAE’s medical tourism revenues will touch Dhs19bn by 2023, particularly with the government enabling its growth.

According to KPMG’s Who Cares, Wins UAE healthcare perspectives report, the UAE’s potential as a medical tourism hub is supported by “the wider tourism ecosystem in the country, such as attractions, hotels, entertainment, and the provision of world-class aviation and logistics.”

UAE’s growing reputation as one of the world’s leading medical hubs will also continue to play a great role in boosting medical tourism. The KPMG report states that the factors driving medical tourism include affordability, with costs acting as an enabler to motivate people travelling across borders for treatments. High-quality medical infrastructure and care are also significant drivers of medical tourism.

In 2021, the UAE was rated as the best medical tourism destination in the GCC by the US-based Medical Tourism Association based on factors such as destination environment, patient experience, current levels of medical tourism, and the attractiveness of traditional tourism. On a global scale, Dubai was rated sixth among 46 destinations – and the first among Arab nations – in the Medical Tourism Index 2020-21, with Abu Dhabi claiming the ninth position. These ratings are testament to the UAE’s growing status as one of the region’s and world’s most attractive medical tourism destinations.

The top specialties for healthcare tourism in the country include cancer treatment, dentistry, fertility procedures, dermatology and skincare, and orthopedics. According to DHA’s Health Investment Guide 2021, top source regions for medical tourism include Russia, CIS countries and the GCC.

Aster’s Boucher, says: “In terms of medical value travel (MVT), the UAE, and Dubai in particular, is quickly becoming a sought-after destination for a variety of medical care and surgical procedures. Historically, we know that about 16 million travellers transit our local airports annually and that 83 per cent of the world’s population is within an eight-hour flight of Dubai.

Given that Dubai now boasts excellent hospital infrastructure, physicians and qualified nurses, we have enabled travellers to consider medical care here, rather than simply transiting through our airports.”

Tamer Wali, founder of Selfologi, says proactive government initiatives such as the Dubai Health Experience and the Abu Dhabi Medical Tourism portals were the first-of-their-kinds in the region to offer comprehensive assistance to visitors seeking medical services across an extensive network of private and public hospitals.

Selfologi, a digital cosmetics’ treatments marketplace enables users to discover, learn about and book cosmetic treatments online. This platform is particularly appealing to an increasing number of tourists who are looking to visit the UAE for cosmetic treatments or procedures.

Wali says: “We believe in building a trusted community of partners so that, together, we can collectively contribute to strengthening the UAE’s position on the global map.”

In terms of technology, telemedicine has also become an important aspect of after care for overseas visitors. Boucher adds, “The Covid pandemic enabled the rapid proliferation of telemedicine; Aster has strategically included this care channel with our MVT services. To facilitate patient flow to Dubai, we have collaborated with international entities such as insurers, international assistance organisations, physicians, hospitals and most importantly, the international consumer.”

And while technology is transforming interaction with patients, hospitals are also tailoring their offerings to stay ahead of the competition and ensure a safe and smooth patient journey.

Boucher says, “We provide home care services, customisable health packages, comprehensive maternity packages and special packages for patients with chronic illnesses. Additionally, we’ve also taken a deliberate approach to appeal to all five human senses. For instance, over the past few months, Medcare has developed and introduced our signature fragrance to all our hospitals. The feedback from both patients, families and visitors has been overwhelmingly positive.

To support our belief in the healing benefits of restorative sleep, our hospitals recently introduced pillow menus, allowing patients to control their own comfort. To appeal to their tastes, we have added the availability of different cuisines for patients.”

These offerings reflect how hospitals in the UAE are pulling out all stops to meet the high expectations of patients visiting the UAE. These visitors not only expect the best-in-class
medical care, but also the same level of service excellence that the country’s hospitality and tourism sectors are known for.

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