Dr Mountasser Kadrie, programme director for the Master of Healthcare Administration (MHA) at Walden University, discusses the golden opportunity for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to become world-leading destinations for healthcare through strategic and targeted investment in people and their development.
The Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) recent initiatives outlining strategic goals for the future of the region, such as the UAE’s Vision 2021 and Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, are promoting healthcare as a strategic target of diversifying the economy following the recent collapse in the price of oil.
Both countries have publicly declared government-supported initiatives on preventive care and reducing prevalence of infectious and chronic diseases. The UAE has developed a robust vision aimed at becoming a world-class healthcare delivery system and improving its public and private hospital accreditation status. In the same light, Saudi Arabia aims to increase access to medical and primary care services through creating private medical insurance, improving training for its doctors and better utilizing its current healthcare delivery infrastructure, such as hospitals, outpatient centres and healthcare ancillary facilities.
We can already see these strategic initiatives starting to make their mark on GCC countries’ healthcare landscape and the economy. Investment in the sector is booming, according to a report by EY. Spending across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region as a whole is expected to grow to $144 billion in 2020, with around $69 billion of this spending coming from the GCC alone. New medical facilities and population-based projects are under way across the region, including the planned addition of more than 13,000 beds at new hospitals and primary care-based healthcare facilities, all designed to enhance healthcare infrastructure and to boost access to high-quality primary care and specialised facilities.
Despite this heavy investment, the EY report finds the GCC healthcare sector still lags behind global medical practice standards and patient care health quality outcomes. The hospital bed capacity of GCC member states is low in comparison with developed countries, and with the sole exception of Qatar, all of the GCC countries have far fewer physicians, mid-level providers and nurses per capita than mature markets.
Development of new and state-of-the-art medical facilities will help to attract an experienced, qualified and capable workforce from across the world, offering the opportunity to work in an environment that champions best practices and high-quality patient care. But this strategy is not enough to meet the Gulf’s pressing shortage of healthcare professional talent. In addition to hiring physicians and nurses, there should also be a focus on training specialists in areas as diverse as healthcare administration, health operations, health regulations and health informatics.
The region’s current focus on investment means it is poised to position itself as a leader in healthcare and stay at the forefront of leveraging and implementing innovative technologies and pioneering new healthcare delivery methods such as telehealth. By using information technology and data analytics to enable the remote treatment or diagnosis of patients, telehealth has the potential to deliver real value to patients and practitioners alike, allowing the targeted population to take greater responsibility for its own health—a key goal of the Vision initiatives.
Such focus will be crucial to alleviate the pressures placed on the system by both economic and social factors in equal measure. Previously, it was the norm for Saudi Arabia in particular to encourage its citizens to travel abroad for specialised health treatments, and when the country was rich with oil revenue they had the money to do this. This is no longer an affordable or sustainable option for many in the Kingdom. Similarly, countries across the Gulf cannot afford their traditional practice of hiring healthcare contractors as needed, therefore, creating a shortage of local trained professionals qualified to meet the countries’ needs.
These circumstances are exacerbated by shifting demographics and the transforming healthcare needs of the population. Life expectancy across the region of some 50 million residents has increased from 62 years to 77 years in four decades, and there has been a dramatic decline in infant mortality rates. Combined with the fact that GCC countries have some of the highest levels in the world of chronic lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity, healthcare services are struggling to keep up with demand.
To achieve its goal of becoming a world-leading destination for healthcare, the GCC must seize this golden opportunity to divert investment into pioneering education and skills programmes that effectively cater to the region and population’s needs. In addition to developing a forward-thinking healthcare infrastructure, it needs to create a sophisticated education infrastructure to build robust academic programmes that expand the knowledge of existing professionals and encourage more locals to join the sector.
Mirroring its approach to expanding and refining its healthcare sector, the GCC must look beyond traditional and legacy methods to provide more innovative and flexible options to its workers to ensure the immediate creation of a skilled pipeline of talent. Hybrid and online forms of education and training are central to meeting the region’s professional staffing requirements. With the capacity to help build a dependable workforce from an existing national talent pool, online education offers students the chance to learn best practices and benefit from the perspectives of professionals outside of the region.
Appropriating adequate investment into higher education and vocational training will be the key to overhauling and ensuring the future success of healthcare in GCC countries. Providing greater access to quality and value-based education and the means to positively impact communities will allow the region to make good on its desire to create a healthy national culture and a renowned health sector that is able to properly meet the demands of its developing population.
Dr Mountasser Kadrie is the programme director of the course-based and competency-based Master of Healthcare Administration (MHA) programmes at Walden University.