Blessed with abundant resources of oil and gas, Qatar has emerged as the wealthiest nation in the world in terms of per capita income. The country’s growing wealth has led it to develop massive infrastructure projects, which has meant a growing influx of expatriates across all classes to help build the country. However, one area where many felt the country was lacking was in healthcare.
Hamad Medical Corporation’s (HMC) hospitals were where most patients seeking treatment ended up as well as at a handful of private clinics and hospitals. Many Qataris opted for treatment overseas – several still do on medical vacations – while expatriates in many cases chose to wait for their vacation times to avail facilities in their home countries.
Now, progress has been so rapid there are hopes Qatar could well become a medical tourism destination, as is slowly happening with Dubai. According to the Online Medical Tourism website, “Many countries have become unstable due to the Arab Spring rebellion, thus Qatar has become the gateway for many Arabs from Saudi Arabia and Dubai who wish to undergo cosmetic surgery and other surgeries. In Qatar, robotic surgery has advanced and the country has been investing in medical tourism in recent years which makes the country a very attractive destination.”
At a recent networking event of the Qatar British Business Forum, Professor the Lord Darzi of Denham, last year awarded the Qatari Sash of Independence, noted that the country faced challenges with healthcare due to rapid population growth. He said: “I think Qatar has done a remarkable job considering the pressures on it and at remarkable speed, tackling big challenges, particularly demand, which is growing significantly.” He is also a board member of the country’s Supreme Council of Health (SCH). Darzi continued: “If you look at Qatar’s research and science developments, as well as investment in new hospitals, it is fantastic. Not only that, but value for money is excellent. We can learn a lot from Qatar.”
The country has drawn up ambitious plans to make the healthcare system among the best in the world. A new 250-bed hospital is being planned near Qatar University, work on which would start in Q1, 2016. A trauma facility is also being planned in the same vicinity, which should be completed by 2022, in time for the FIFA 2022 World Cup, when football fans are expected to descend on the country in droves. Nineteen health centres are being set up, with work on six already underway as well as a hospital catering to migrant workers.
Qatar’s healthcare sector is the fastest-growing in the region, according to a report by investment bank Alpen Capital last year. From 2013-2018, the CAGR is expected to be at a 14.4 percent and from 2006 to 2011, the figure was a healthy 23 percent.
If not a medical destination quite just yet, nowadays, there are plenty of healthcare facilities, leaving people spoilt for choice. Orchid Polyclinic, for one, is the latest entrant in the healthcare sector, having opened its doors to patients a couple of months ago. Centre Manager Sarah Elkheir Chouman says: “We have 12 treatment rooms with nine medical specialities – skin diseases, skincare, aging, hair, therapeutic feeding, treatments of venereal diseases and diseases of male infertility, family medicine, general medicine, gynaecological diseases and pregnancy follow-up. All clinics and treatment rooms are equipped with the latest devices and technologies.”
Till date, Orchid has received more Qatari nationals as patients but expatriates are encouraged to visit the facility. Orchid is in the process of applying to be a National Insurance Scheme (Seha) service provider. Al Dana Pharmacy has been subcontracted by Orchid and will operate a facility on the premises.
Chouman believes there is plenty of space for private healthcare in Qatar as exemplified by the rise in the number of specialities. “In the country, people are feeling more comfortable with attending a private clinic as the standards have risen in Qatar in the past three years with more medical clinics and in particular, clinical beauty and surgical facilities opening in Doha,” she says.
Chouman is also hopeful of a vibrant medical tourism industry down the line. “Widespread private health and beauty clinics will open doors to renowned physicians as visiting doctors and further expanding research and dialogue between local and international doctors through conventions and workshops conducted in Qatar, further creating a hub and a medical destination in the field of medicine,” she says.
While many continue to prefer receiving treatment abroad, Qatar is trying hard to upgrade medical facilities in the country. Existing hospitals are being refurbished, more experienced staff being brought in and of course, new facilities are being constructed. The entire healthcare system is closely monitored by the Supreme Council of Health, which recently shut a polyclinic temporarily for offering substandard facilities.
The development of healthcare in the country will help relieve the pressure on HMC, which has been the principal public healthcare provider in Qatar for over three decades. HMC manages eight hospitals, incorporating five speciality facilities and three community hospitals, the latest in the portfolio being the Cuban Hospital in Dukhan. HMC also manages the National Ambulance Service as well as home healthcare.
The tremendous pressures on HMC’s infrastructure has in part led to the burgeoning of private providers in the country, although in terms of the range of services offered, they still would fall short of what can be provided by HMC. Being government facilities, it is not be possible for HMC to turn away patients, which has led to complaints of overcrowding, difficulties in getting appointments and a perpetually harried staff.
In order to groom future doctors and nurses, HMC has developed the GCC region’s first academic health system and actively collaborates with Weill Cornell Medical College-Qatar and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement and Partners Healthcare, Boston. As many patients come to HMC from places like Al Khor and Al Wakrah, the Cuban Hospital has helped ease the burden on HMC.
Officially opened in January 2012 as a joint project between the Qatari and Cuban governments, the hospital is staffed by more than 400 Cuban medical professionals, including doctors, nurses and technicians in the fields of rehabilitation, dentistry, pathology, biomedicine and radiology.
Sidra Medical and Research Center
Qatar’s flagship Sidra Medical and Research Center, of which much is expected, has run into delays over various issues and its projected opening may have to be put off by a few more years, which would place additional pressure on the country’s healthcare facilities, public and private. As it is, there is already a four-year delay with the project. However, the government hopes the inconvenience can be tided over with existing and upcoming facilities able to stem the breach.
It will take around another three years for inpatient services to be available to the public at Sidra while it is hoped that at least outpatient facilities will become accessible sometime next year. Sidra would provide paediatric and obstetrics services and accommodate 400 beds. The whole Sidra project is estimated to cost USD 7.9 billion and is being funded through a Qatar Foundation endowment.
Other healthcare centres
A favoured destination for many patients in Qatar is Al Ahli Hospital, which opened its doors in November 2004. Facilities include 250 rooms, including royal suites and VIP rooms, 16 rooms for day surgery, eight beds in the neonatal intensive care unit, five beds in the intensive care unit and five in the coronary care unit. Al Ahli allows its patients, or guests, as the hospital call them, to choose their own specialist for treatment, offers options to take a second opinion and should the facilities required not be available, guests are referred elsewhere.
Hospitals in the country have discovered that a patient must be accorded respect, which is why buzzwords like ‘courtesy’, ‘love’ and ‘guests’ are flying around. People are often put off by abrupt behaviour of staff at medical facilities, especially at the first point of contact, such as reception areas. Training is being imparted to staff at all levels to impart the meaning of courtesy, with treatment not necessarily confined just to medical aspects.
While new facilities are being set up in the country to cope with massive demand from a growing population, a facility like the American Hospital, which has been in existence since 1999, is looking at expansion. A new 250-bed American Hospital will be developed, and up to 60,000 sq. metres of land has already been allocated centrally in Doha, providing access to the whole community. The establishment of the new American Hospital is based on the concept that the community is in need of personal and cutting-edge medical services with a human touch provided by friendly and caring staff in a pleasant and professional environment.
Having opened in 2006, Naseem Al Rabeeh recently shifted its location, and services have been upgraded to include improved patient-friendly clinics, anti-bacterial vinyl flooring, spacious waiting areas with world-class interiors, increased number of registration counters, comfort rooms and a larger pharmacy. There is an improved emergency and casualty department with more beds.
Premium Naseem Al Rabeeh Medical Centre offers specialised procedures in aesthetic skin care, gynaecology and dental treatments. It will soon launch speciality departments like psychiatry and general surgery. The facility will expand its services to include super-speciality departments like cardiology, neurology, urology, gastroenterology, nephrology and endocrinology. Expansion clearly indicates that a surge in demand is foreseen.
Apollo Clinic Qatar, is part of India’s Apollo Hospital Group of India, currently rated as the largest corporate hospital group in Asia and the third- largest in the world. The Doha facility started functioning in 2005 and with more than 40 doctors, is the largest polyclinic in Qatar. The facility offers consultations and outpatient treatments in almost all major medical and dental specialities and a laboratory where pathological investigations are done. The hospital is favoured by Indian expatriates and also offers health cards to corporates for treatment at reduced costs.
Some facilities also accept insurance schemes from other countries in the region, which in the future, could lead to increased medical tourism from other GCC states once the practice spreads. Among the facilities medical visitors could check into is the 80-bed Doha Clinic Hospital, which opened in 2001. Another major healthcare player is Al Emadi Hospital, established in 2004 by noted surgeon Dr Mohamed Al Emadi. It bills itself as a private, acute care, general hospital with a mission to deliver comprehensive medical services, both inpatient and outpatient. The outpatient clinics here cover most of sub-specialities and deluxe and VIP suites are also available.
Seha insurance scheme
Seha is managed and operated by the National Health Insurance Company (NHIC). It provides mandatory health insurance coverage through a network of public and private providers and forms a key component in the realisation of the National Health Strategy and the overall Qatar National Vision 2030. The strategy calls for the establishment of a social health insurance system that brings greater efficiency and transparency to the nation’s healthcare sector.
The scheme currently covers all Qatari nationals for the full spectrum of basic health services for both inpatient and outpatient services, including preventive care, emergency treatment, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, long-term care, radiology, ophthalmology, laboratory testing and prescription medicines.
Stage 1 of the scheme was launched in July 2013, covering Qatari females aged 12 and above for gynaecology, obstetrics, maternity and related women’s health conditions. As of 30 April 2014, the second stage provides comprehensive insurance coverage to all Qatari nationals for their basic health care needs.
Expatriates will soon be able to avail of Seha services, once all wrinkles are ironed out, such as who will pay on behalf of the resident – the beneficiary or the employer.
That Qatar is working to shore up its healthcare system with utmost seriousness is best illustrated by investments in healthcare rising to QR 15.7 billion in 2014 compared to QR 14 bn the year before. Although as a percentage of the national budget, the figures may seem insignificant, this is far from the case as shown by the number of healthcare projects in the country. In the end, patients stand to gain.