A booming population, a surge in lifestyle diseases and massive healthcare budgets have driven up demand for hospitals in the Gulf region.
The GCC’s healthcare expenditure is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 11.4 per cent by 2015, according to a
report by consultancy firm Ernst & Young.
The region’s biggest health care event Arab Health was an apt reflection of that trend. In its 40th year, the event brought in 120,000 visitors from around the world. Around 4,000 exhibitors showcased their solutions and products with countries such as bahrain, Indonesia and Thailand exhibiting for the first time.
Last year was also especially beneficial to healthcare providers, with Dubai making health insurance mandatory for all employees and Saudi Arabia opening up its health sector to private players.
But among GCC countries, the UAE remains stellar performer in the healthcare sector. According to a report by research firm Colliers International, the country alone will need an additional 5,188 beds by 2020.
Picking up this trend, hospital operators too have outlined ambitious expansion plans.
A HeAltHcAre Boom?
Dubai-based group Aster DM Healthcare is planning to invest up to Dhs500 million in the GCC over the next two years through new clinics, hospitals and pharmacies, the group’s Corporate Strategies director Alisha Moopen told Gulf Business.
“We invested over $150 million in India over the last year and a half while a $100 million was invested in the GCC.”
Despite a region wide investment, Aster’s best performing market is the UAE, Moopen added.
The group opened its largest Aster Hospital in Dubai earlier this year and is working on two more facilities – one in Sharjah and another in Dubai.
“In terms of medical centres, we have around 60 units in the UAE itself. We have actually added 25 to 30 units in the last year. We will have a further 40 clinics opening up in 2015 and 10 more by March 2017.”
This is in line with the group’s plan to add 300 pharmacies, 50 Aster medical centres and 20 Medcare units by 2017.
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi’s largest listed hospital group Al Noor Hospitals announced that it opened four medical centres in the UAE last year while it acquired Gulf International Cancer Centre in an effort to expand its core competencies.
“In 2015 we are planning to grow our clinics,” said Sami Alom, chief strategy officer, Al Noor Hospitals Group.
“We have made a commitment to grow by at least two a year and in 2015 we will achieve more than that. We will be opening a medical centre in Sharjah, which will be the first operation in the northern emirates and also the first time we go out of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
“We are planning one facility in Abu Dhabi and in Al Ain, where we already have the ongoing construction of a 40-bed hospital.”
NMC Healthcare, another listed hospital group in the capital, is planning to open three new facilities including a hospital in Dubai Investment Park, a women’s hospital in Abu Dhabi and a medical centre in Al Ain. The company is also constructing a 250-bed hospital in Khalifa city in Abu Dhabi, scheduled to open in the second quarter of 2015.
In addition to local operators in the market, new players are also entering the sphere. Among them, India-based Medanta Hospital is slated to open a 250-bed hospital in Dubai Healthcare City by 2017 to cater to patients requiring specialised care. It will be the group’s first hospital in the UAE.
Yet as competition intensifies, healthcare providers are battling to retain and even attract medical professionals needed to keep pace with their growth.
“They [medical professionals] become your biggest strength and biggest challenge as well,” said Moopen.
“To try and get the doctors, administrators, technical staff…especially at the rate we are expanding, to equip the hospital with the right staff and resources at the right time is always a challenge.”
The human resource shortage in the healthcare is sector is the pressing concern of the hour, industry experts noted.
“The UAE faces a major issue of manpower shortage in the healthcare industry, with the number of physicians at 1.5 per 1,000 people,” said B.R. Shetty, founder and CEO of NMC Healthcare.
“Importing doctors from others countries contributes to a big chunk of healthcare costs.”
In order to reduce the over reliance on outsourced talent, experts suggest encouraging more locals to enter the healthcare market.
But more training institutions are required in the region to make this a reality.
Dubai, specifically, has tried to fill in this market gap with the launch of Mohammed bin Rashid University for Medicine and Health Sciences in September last year. The university, which is open to both locals and expats, is expected to receive its first batch of students in September this year.
“The university is for undergraduate level and is the first university of this type in Dubai. It is government backed,
co-educational and multi-national,” said Marwan Abedin, CEO of Dubai Healthcare City (DHCC).
Abedin hopes that the UAE will be able to attract more Emiratis to the healthcare profession through the establishment of the centre. Efforts to develop manpower in the healthcare sector are not limited to the local university, however.
“Currently, we also offer many courses and workshops through Rashid Medical Centre so that medical professionals are able to upgrade their licensing capabilities.”
Earlier this year, DHCC also inked a deal with Harvard Medical Centre to open a training centre at the Mohammed Bin Rashid University for Medicine and Health Sciences.
As per the agreement, experts at the centre will study methods to improve surgery outcomes and treatments for diabetes and obesity, helping in research and development.
The healthcare free zone has also been active in organising medical conferences over the last year, with one of them being conducted by the British medical journal The Lancet, Abedin said.
However, even with Dubai’s investments in medical education, there is a long way to go, according to consultancy firm PwC’s Middle East Health Industries leader Ryder Smith.
“We need to turn the tables now and get people willing to stay longer than three or five years,” he said.
“That is not just a money issue, for these medical professionals. It is a developmental issue. We have probably underinvested in that area but turnover can be very expensive in this field.
“Building things is easy but getting the most out of the people running it is difficult. The region is still catching up in this area. There has been enormous progress but that does not mean that we are there yet.”