Gulf nations lead the way on healthcare revolution
While some countries in the Middle East have made significant progress in the development of their healthcare systems by restructuring their healthcare industries, others have fallen behind. Not only is it important to examine the progress, challenges and potential opportunities, but it is also critical to identify ways to further improve the quality of the healthcare systems across the Middle East.
One of the core measurements of quality of life in any nation is the efficiency of its healthcare system, which plays a key role in improving people’s well-being and health.
There are different parameters to evaluate a health system in a country, such as whether it is patient-orientated, whether it takes into account patients’ values, needs, priorities and preferences, the level of patient satisfaction and whether health services are accessible to all people, meaning that even those with low incomes or from low socioeconomic classes can have access to good quality healthcare.
In some countries, people in urban areas obtain high-quality medical care, but those living in rural or remote areas may have difficulty accessing healthcare facilities. Other factors to consider are the costs related to healthcare services, accessibility to medications, the average waiting period for a patient to receive care, the doctor-to-patient ratio in the country, whether medical staff are properly trained and whether the country is investing in robust medical research centers and adapting and taking advantage of the latest scientific and technological innovations.
It is promising that the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain, have made significant progress when it comes to their healthcare systems.
This progress has resulted in an increase in the number of hospitals and primary healthcare centers, better access to healthcare, increased life expectancy, higher healthcare quality, improved healthcare infrastructure, a reduction in the prevalence of communicable diseases, lower infant and maternal mortality rates, and shorter waits for patients to receive emergency medical care.
For example, in Saudi Arabia, more than 90 percent of patients receive emergency or urgent care within four hours of their arrival at a healthcare facility. The SEHA Virtual Hospital, which was launched in 2020, is the largest in the world and relies on the latest technologies in order to support health facilities linked to 130 hospitals. In 2019, the Kingdom introduced universal health coverage, providing healthcare that is free of charge for all citizens.
Saudi Arabia also launched the Health Sector Transformation Program in 2022 to overhaul the country’s healthcare system, improve public health and expand access to health services not only for its citizens but also for residents and visitors. Since its launch, the number of healthcare professionals in the Kingdom has increased by 65 percent and satisfaction in hospital and primary care services has risen.
The UAE’s healthcare sector ranks among the best in the world. It enjoys a good ratio of doctors to patients, while life expectancy in the UAE has increased to a level (77.8 years) similar to those seen in Europe and North America and maternal mortality rates have dropped to three in every 100,000 births.
Saudi Arabia reportedly spent $36 billion on healthcare and social development in 2022.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
There are several important reasons behind these nations’ significant progress, which can be applied to other countries in the region to improve their healthcare sectors. Firstly, all these nations have adopted a larger vision for sustainable development — Saudi Arabia Vision 2030, Kuwait Vision 2035, Bahrain Vision 2030 and UAE Vision 2030 — in which they are placing significant emphasis on improving the health and quality of life of their people.
Secondly, making significant investments in the healthcare system is essential in protecting society, creating an equitable future and boosting the economy. The healthcare system should not be viewed through the prism of consumption. Healthcare advances have occurred in these countries thanks to their increased spending and financing, which have enabled them to restructure their healthcare industries, enhance the infrastructure of their health systems and provide a high-quality and accessible healthcare sector.
They have made improving their healthcare systems a priority and a considerable amount of their budgets have been allocated to developing and enhancing value-based healthcare systems. For instance, Saudi Arabia reportedly spent about $36 billion on healthcare and social development in 2022, which equates to 14.4 percent of its budget. The Kingdom is also planning to invest more than $65 billion to further develop its healthcare infrastructure.
The third reason behind these countries’ progress is their increased focus on technological advances, privatization, research and training, and advancements in medical treatments. As Samer Abu Ghazaleh, chairman of the healthcare council at Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, pointed out: “Through Vision 2030, the Saudi Health Ministry has taken the bold step to shift from being both the regulator and the operator to being just a regulator and gradually assigning the operations to the private sector.”
It is important to point out that digitalization is going to be a core pillar of the future of healthcare. That is why it is critical to encourage innovation in the medical field and invest in emerging and new technologies, including big data and artificial intelligence. It is a step in the right direction that the Saudi Ministry of Health this month signed a memorandum of understanding with the medical technology giant Becton Dickinson in order to advance its digital transformation through new technologies.
In summary, Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have made significant progress in their healthcare systems thanks to their visionary policies, significant investments in the medical field, emphasis on their nations’ health and well-being and utilization of emerging technologies and digitalization.
- Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. X: @Dr_Rafizadeh