(Post by CATHERINE SUNDHER)
A pressing issue for everyone today is health care. It’s not something I think about often, but when illness strikes, today’s concerns move to the back burners becoming tomorrow’s non-issues.
Not until 1960 did the first doctors arrive near Abu Dhabi, followed several years later with the building of a small twenty room hospital. There were no roads, so most patients arrived by camel, donkey or on foot. Half of the babies born died and a third of their mothers didn’t survive childbirth—the population was actually declining! Now, fifty-some years later, we’re soaring towards two million along with some pretty significant health issues.
To qualify for a visa to work/live in the UAE, we first had to undergo health exams ensuring no signs of HIV, hepatitis or tuberculosis (TB). Cases of TB have doubled over the past year, with poorly nourished labourers living in overcrowded and unsanitary labour camps becoming easy targets. Knowing they’ll be deported once diagnosed has resulted in many evading treatment and fading into the woodwork.
Even though we live on one of the main thoroughfares, rarely do I hear sirens from passing emergency vehicles. Even with one of the world’s highest rates for traffic accident deaths, ambulances are more often for transport than as first responders. The lack of an address system along with motorists who have little regard for ambulances struggling to maneuver through traffic, often results in lengthy delays and all too often, valuable time lost. To get to a hospital quickly, most people grab a taxi or use their own vehicle—valet parking awaits them. To reduce the high number of deaths and disabilities advanced training and additional ambulance stations are now in the works.
Knowing there are severe penalties and zero tolerance for a long list of banned and illegal drugs, I did my homework before we came. Many sleeping pills, products with codeine and even poppy seeds for culinary use, qualify you for jail time. Once in the country, laws are much more lax and a variety of similar drugs are readily available and often prescribed. There’s no tracking system for medications so what should be available only with a doctor’s prescription, can often be acquired from pharmacists selling directly over the counter. This results in some traveling from one pharmacy to the next acquiring drugs to self-medicate.
Aside from the four government hospitals, dozens of smaller private hospitals and clinics can be found on almost every block in the bottom floors of slightly worn apartment buildings or high-rises. The law in Abu Dhabi stipulates that all employers must provide health care insurance for expats and their families, making our visits and prescriptions little to no cost. From early morning until late at night, we can walk-in to any clinic, see any doctor or specialist (no referral necessary) then expeditiously have a battery of tests done. So many in fact, they often set alarm bells off for something else! If that’s not enough, doctors give out their cell phone numbers or will call us personally. Insurance is approved and operations are scheduled before we even have time to register our diagnosis.
I’m of the mindset that moving this quickly is not always a good thing. Patient/doctor relationships need to be established and health issues are like puzzles; they need careful evaluation and contemplation before all the pieces fit together. Perhaps there’s money to be made in quantity over quality? Many of the medical practitioners are from neighbouring countries whose salaries (like everyone else’s) are usually relevant to their country of origin. Perhaps this is why VIP’s requiring serious medical attention, often travel for treatment abroad.
The Gulf has a very high incidence per capita of lifestyle diseases: 20% diabetes with another 18% at high risk of developing it, 60% obesity and it’s predicted that cardiovascular diseases will triple within 3 years. To help combat these statistics, the Emirates continue to adopt international standards and by 2025, they plan to increase expenditures in public health care by 250% (33 billion CAD) and doubling the number of hospital beds.
In a relatively short period of time, tremendous strides have been achieved, but there’s much to be done before becoming a top national centre for health care. Next month, twenty five countries will come together in Abu Dhabi to discuss current health issues at the 2nd Annual World Health Care Congress Middle East. In the foreseeable future, the UAE may not only be popular for its world famous landmarks, but as a health tourism destination. I’m just impressed they’ve already come as far as they have.
Until next time…
Catherine Sundher, Abu Dhabi, UAE
Catherine is a West Coast girl who feels fortunate to call Victoria, British Columbia (Canada) as her “home-base”. She’s happily married to an educator and has two grown and independent sons. Curious by nature and with a perpetual desire for new challenges, Catherine has moved from the “Travel Industry to Design” with numerous stops along the way. As Gilbert Chesterson wrote, “Why Not” is a slogan for an interesting life.Tweet