The Rise of Medical Tourism in the Middle East
Written by Emanuela Lertora
The rise of healthcare costs in western countries and the lack of insurance coverage for certain procedures are currently boosting the global medical tourism sector. People are finding themselves willing to travel to other countries to seek medical, dental, and surgical care they can’t find or afford at home.
While Asian countries like Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia have been popular medical tourism destinations for decades, a number of Middle Eastern nations are now becoming the go-to spots for quality, affordable healthcare. Medical tourism is said to generate a revenue of $50 billion a year and is increasing by 15-25 percent year over year.
WHAT MOTIVATE PEOPLE TO BECOME MEDICAL TOURIST?
Globalization of information and word-of-mouth referrals, especially in the virtual world, are the new drivers of the medical tourism industry. Whether it’s for a complex organ transplant or a simple Botox injection, people are becoming more and more motivated to travel to seek medical treatments. But what makes people want to travel long distances to undergo surgery?
- Costs: Many surgical procedures performed in medical tourism destinations cost a fraction of what they do in western countries.
- Waiting lists: Countries that operate public healthcare systems, such as Canada, the U.S., and the U.K., often have long wait times for certain operations. In 2014, the average patient in Canada was expected to wait almost 10 weeks after receiving a referral from a general practitioner before undergoing a necessary medical treatment.
- Insurance coverage: Increasingly often, patients in western countries are finding out that their insurance provider either does not cover a surgery or it places limitations on the choice of the facility, surgeon, or prosthetics to be used.
- Legal restrictions: Patients may travel to access medical services that are legal abroad but forbidden in their own country. The list of illegal practices varies from country to country, but people often travel for fertility treatments, abortion, and doctor-assisted suicide, also known as euthanasia.
POPULAR DESTINATIONS FOR MEDICAL TOURISM
Switzerland has been an international hub of medical tourism for decades due to its high-quality standards and permissive law regulations. However, in recent years, medical tourism has evolved through the rise of newly emerging countries that are increasingly specialized in different fields.
For instance, Korea is emerging as a destination for plastic surgery, Europe for hip- and knee-replacement surgeries, the Philippines and Thailand for cosmetic surgeries, and India for heart surgeries.
Jordan was awarded Medical Destination of the Year by IMTJ Medical Travel Awards in 2014 for attracting 250,000 international patients and generating a revenue of more than $1 billion. India, on the other hand, is registering a year-over-year growth of over 30 percent in its number of medical tourists, which made it a $2 billion industry by the end of 2015. Last year, more than 150,000 people travelled to India as medical tourists.
THE UAE AS A MEDICAL HUB
With more than Dh1 billion in medical tourism revenues in 2015, the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) has projected an influx of nearly 1.3 million medical tourists by 2021. The annual revenue from medical tourism is estimated to increase by 13 percent every year in the next five years.
A large network of hospitals in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Ras Al-Khaimah are quickly being established as medical tourism centers. The UAE is quickly gaining popularity as a medical tourism destination due to its low costs, English-speaking medical staff, and virtually nonexistent queues for treatments. The UAE has also introduced specific medical tourism visas, established various healthcare speciality areas, and implemented efficient advertising efforts and building infrastructures. Healthcare facilities in the UAE have hired top-quality doctors and staff from all over the world, offering them attractive packages and facilities and international cooperation with medical tourism operators. Specialists from across the globe are beginning to set up hospitals and clinics in the UAE; Cleveland Clinic in Abu Dhabi is just one example.
The UAE is currently working on building expertise in the following areas: orthopedics and sports medicine, plastic surgery, ophthalmology, dental care, dermatology and skin care, aesthetic practices and surgeries, and preventive health and wellness.
The majority of the tourists who visited Dubai for medical treatment in 2015 came from Asian countries (43 percent); 29 percent came from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, 15 percent came from European countries, 7 percent came from African countries, and 5 percent came from North and South America. Most of the medical tourists in Dubai sought plastic surgery or treatment for osteoporosis, fertility issues, or dermatological issues.
MEDICAL TOURISM DESTINATIONS IN THE MIDDLE EAST
- The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is investing intensively in its health system. Most of the financing comes from government bodies, which puts a continuous strain on the government. Saudi Arabia has many local competitors, particularly Jordan and the UAE. Saudi Arabia gets medical tourists seeking pediatric procedures, obesity remedies, and eye surgeries.
- Lebanon offers a variety of quality medical services at competitive and affordable prices. Lebanon often attracts patients from CCG countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE because there are no language barriers, as most doctors in Lebanon are fluent in English, Arabic, and French. Reports made by Lebanon’s Agency for Investment Development reveals that Lebanon’s medical tourism sector has grown 30 percent per year since 2009.
- Jordan has become one of the most popular medical tourism destinations in the world because of its accessibility, security, high-quality healthcare services, and governmental support through the facilitation of visa issuance.
- Turkey ranks number six among the top medical tourism destinations in the world. It boasts successful outcomes, competitive price levels, advanced medical technology, and a unique geographic location. Best of all, citizens of seventy-two different countries are able to travel to Turkey without a visa. Prices in private Turkish hospitals tend to be extremely low when compared to their American counterparts, particularly for emergency room services.
- Cyprus is easily accessible for people around the world. It was one of the first countries to emerge in the European medical tourism sector, and the country established a national initiative to promote medical tourism early on. Cyprus has gained recognition in the past few years for its excellent healthcare system, which offers low-cost, quality medical treatments for patients from all over the world. Additionally, Cyprus offers dental, cosmetic, and in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments at a very competitive cost.