Dubai medical tourism figures underestimated

Dubai had a good 2015 for medical tourism but the numbers need clarification. 296,491 medical tourists came from outside of the UAE.

The headline figures are that Dubai had 630,833 medical tourists in 2015 and targets a million by 2020. But only 296,491 (47%) came from outside of the UAE. Total revenue from both types was US$400 million. Both categories include expatriates working in the Gulf.

Dr Layla Al Marzouqi of the Dubai Medical Tourism Project openly admits that of that 630,833 only 296,491 came from outside of the UAE. The 2020 target for this sector is 500,000.

The figures only come from the 26 hospitals and clinics in Dubai that are responsible for medical tourism. This suggests that actual figures could be higher. In the future the other 2,730 health care facilities in Dubai will collect data to provide a more comprehensive picture of the actual number of medical tourists. But in Dubai there are only 31 hospitals, so the extra numbers from this mass data collection are not expected to be high.

Within the small population of 4.8 million of adults and children in Dubai are 1.2 million adult expatriates who are working in Dubai. There are millions more working expatriates in the other states of the UAE. Expatriates account for 85 % of the country’s population. 80% of doctors and 90% of nurses in UAE are foreigners. 85% of the working population is expatriate. The Dubai hospitals record the citizenship of patients, not the country they are working in – so the actual medical tourism figures –of people choosing to fly to Dubai for treatment, rather than of international patients already in Dubai- are still an unknown.

There is another interesting puzzle. If you count people travelling within states of the UAE as international medical tourists, then the same rules should apply to the UK, USA, India etc.

Using conventional medical tourism comparisons we should take as the 2015 figure for medical tourists to Dubai as 300,000- as if they come from outside of the UAE then it does not matter if they are expatriates working in the Gulf, Gulf citizens or medical tourists from other countries.

Earlier official figures admit that most business comes from within the Gulf region and as yet Dubai has not attracted many medical tourists from Europe or Asia. But as prices in Asia are much lower and few Americans or Europeans choose to go to the Middle East for treatment, the question for Dubai is how much money and effort should it spend on trying to attract Asians and Europeans?

Dubai now admits that it cannot compete on price so is concentrating on promoting the quality or care and targeting both Africa and the Gulf.

Dubai is focusing on seven specific areas to attract medical tourists: orthopaedics, ophthalmology, assisted reproductive techniques, dermatology, bariatric and weight-loss surgeries, cosmetic surgery and dental care. It offers packages on all these.

The amount of money, time and effort Dubai has put into promoting medical tourist is significant; no figures measuring the return on investment have been published.