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Dubai: a global medical tourism destination

Throughout history, people have sought cures and better health by travelling abroad. Whether to visit the healing waters of a natural spa.

The global spread of modern medicine might appear to diminish the necessity of this practice, but in recent years, there has been an upsurge in interest in ‘medical tourism’. In fact, the Global Medical Tourism Market report1 predicts a rise of over 12.55% year-on-year of ‘medical tourism’ between 2017 and 2021. But what exactly is it?

The term ‘medical tourism’ refers to people who travel to a foreign country with the primary purpose of making use of that country’s medical, dental or surgical facilities. This might be for services ranging from preventive and health-conductive treatment, to rehabilitation and curative.

While there, visitors will often also behave as leisure tourists, taking in the sights, staying in hotels and eating in local restaurants.

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Backing for medical tourism

For governments, medical tourism can be an attractive prospect. Globally an estimated $45.5-72bn2 is being spent annually in this industry, providing many economic benefits3.

As well as injecting foreign exchange earnings to the local economy and contributing to government revenues, medical tourism also boosts the local healthcare industry, creating new jobs and business opportunities, and encouraging investment in healthcare services.

Additionally, the need for better infrastructure to support the influx of tourists means that money is put back into local communities, which in turn encourages more tourism.

In 2014, the UAE announced plans to make Dubai the number one location for medical tourism in the world, pledging ambitious goals and initiatives for the medical tourism and healthcare industry as part of a wider 2020 vision.

Dubai aims to attract 500,000 medical tourists annually by 20204, hiring thousands of new healthcare professionals, and investing in 18 new private and four new public hospitals. In April 2016, the Dubai Health Authority (DHA)5 launched the world’s first comprehensive electronic medical tourism portal, the Dubai Health Experience Programme (DXH)6, providing an easy path for medical tourists to plan their journey, treatment and stay in one package.

The portal offers the services of more than 600 packages from 43 healthcare facilities and 344 doctors. The DHA also aims to grow its list of partners, such as the Health Bank, offering end-to-end services, from research to treatment, accommodation, translation services and follow-up care.

The General Directorate of Residency and Foreign Affairs – Dubai (GDRFA-D) has also played its part, signing an agreement7 with the DHA to ease visa procedures for medical tourists so they can visit Dubai more frequently and for longer – strengthening Dubai’s position as a global destination for medical tourism.

Medical tourism in Dubai

Dubai is currently the number one destination in the United Arab Emirates for medical tourism and 16th globally, according to the Medical Tourism Index8.

The city has seen a dramatic growth9 in numbers of medical tourists in recent years. According to the DHA, in 2016, Dubai welcomed 326,649 medical tourists10 into the city, a growth of 9.5% from 2015, generating AED 1.4bn for the economy.

Of these medical tourists, 37% were from Asian countries11, 31% from surrounding Arab and Gulf Cooperation Council countries and 15% were Europeans. The most popular treatment areas were orthopaedics, dermatology and ophthalmology.


The future for healthcare in Dubai

Technology and collaboration are key for Dubai’s approach to medical tourism and its overall vision of healthcare excellence for all residents. Dubai Healthcare City (DHCC)12 is one example of what this vision looks like.

DHCC features close to 160 clinical partners across more than 150 specialties – including hospitals, outpatient medical centres and diagnostic laboratories – hosting licensed medical professionals from almost 90 countries.

Describing itself as a ‘free zone’13, DHCC also benefits from special tax, customs and import rules that links state-of-the-art medical facilities with cutting-edge academic work.

In addition, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment are two priority sub-sectors of the Dubai Industrial Strategy 203014, which aims to elevate the city as a global platform for knowledge-based, sustainable and innovation-focused businesses.

Alongside this, the DHA continues the rollout out of its current 12-year master plan, which includes the addition of 40 primary healthcare centres and three new hospitals.

For Dubai nationals and expats, the rise of medical tourism brings many advantages in terms of access to better healthcare services. Following such a huge investment in the sector, Dubai’s residents are perfectly placed to access world-class medical facilities and treatments and improve their general health and wellbeing.

Discover more about staying healthy in Dubai


The information provided in this article is designed as a guide and reference point to what you might expect in Dubai. Please be sure to check any information with local Dubai authorities to ensure information is valid and timely.

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