Why is Medical Tourism Booming in the UAE?

We’ve looked at the factors behind the significant increase in medical tourism in the UAE

A Global Outlook & the Changing Face of Medical Tourism

The global phenomenon of patients moving beyond borders for affordable and quality treatment has been gaining momentum in the past few years. The global medical tourism market is reported to be currently around USD 100 billion and is growing at a rapid rate of approximately 20% year on year as per Arab Health.

An increasing number of countries are vying for a share of this growing market by promoting and branding themselves as medical tourist destinations. Therefore, health seekers now have a wide range of destinations to choose from.

According to the Medical Tourism Index (MTI), a country-based performance measure to assess the attractiveness of a country as a medical tourist destination, Canada has emerged as the top medical tourism destination worldwide, followed closely by the United Kingdom and Singapore.

The UAE ranked 16th as a preferred destination for Medical Tourism in 2014 and is aiming at making it to the top 5 in the coming years.

UAE Forging Ahead

In its endeavor to climb up the medical tourism rankings, the UAE government is working aggressively on expanding and revamping its healthcare infrastructure and systems to meet international standards.

On the global medical tourism scale, the UAE has become one of the preferred destinations for following specializations: orthopedic and sports medicine, ophthalmology, dental procedures, dermatology, preventive medicine and skin care, with plastic surgery being the most popular one.

International medical tourists treated in Dubai have grown from 120,000 in 2012 to 296,000 in 2015. Dubai is expecting an increase of 12% annually and is targeting more than 500,000 medical tourists by 2020, thereby generating around USD 710 million per annum.

1.   Key contributing factors driving the boom

1.1.  Proactive Government Initiatives

The government in the UAE is very proactive in developing its healthcare infrastructure. The UAE accounts for 26% of the total healthcare spend in the GCC. The per capita healthcare spending in the UAE is the second highest in the region.

In an effort to attract patients from abroad, the Dubai government launched the ‘Dubai Health Experience (DXH)’ in April. They have put together a user friendly single window smart application as well as a digital gateway for medical tourists to make use of a superior, comprehensive and integrated healthcare service system. The website offers a broad range of medical packages as well as a booking platform for procedures, visas, discounted Emirates flight tickets, hotels, insurance and sightseeing.

This initiative was made possible through a collaboration of over 25 healthcare facilities that form the ‘DXH Group’.

1.2.  Robust Infrastructure

In the UAE, the private sector is responsible for the establishment of most hospitals. A majority of the private sector players are concentrated in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Dubai has 38 hospitals of which 6 are owned by the government and 32 by the private sector. These hospitals strive to live up to international healthcare standards, and 20 out of these 38 hospitals are JCI accredited. In the UAE, the number of beds in the private sector was 2,549 in 2008, 2,556 in 2011, and is estimated to reach 5,188 by 2020. Out of this, Dubai had 1,468 beds in 2012, and is projected to reach 2,967 by 2020.

The UAE ranks higher than a majority of GCC countries across most healthcare indicators. Dubai’s beds per 1,000 people ratio stands at 1.9 which is considerably higher than the average ratio of 1.7 across the GCC.

Dubai’s ratio for physicians per 1,000 people is 2.7, which is much higher than the average ratio of physicians across the GCC of 1.75.

1.3.   Location

Dubai is a popular tourist destination and ranks as the fifth most popular city in the world for international travelers.

With the third best air transport infrastructure in the world according to WEF, and being 8 hours from two-thirds of the world’s population, Dubai is an ideal destination for medical tourism.

1.4.    Expat Population

The population of the UAE predominantly consists of expatriate workers. It has several million expatriates amounting to 84% of their working population and Dubai has a 2.2 million expatriates amounting to 91% of its population. (DSC, 2015)

2.    Barriers to growth

2.1.    Pricing

While the cost of healthcare provision in the UAE compares very favorably with most Western markets, the pricing is not competitive enough to attract patients from Asia & Africa.

2.2.    Retaining Quality Human Resources

With a limited number of established physicians, there is a trend of poaching physicians from competitors. This has given rise to unreasonably high physicians’ salaries which is not sustainable in the long run and will have a negative impact on the profitability of hospitals in the UAE.


The UAE has positioned itself as a force to reckon with in the medical tourism sector by placing themselves within the top 20 destinations of choice. If the government continues to maintain this momentum and provide the right support and regulatory frameworks, it will definitely achieve its goal of making it to the top 5 by 2020. Offsetting the barriers to growth will play a crucial part in how quickly or slowly they reach the top.


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