On 18 July 2022, the World Health Assembly approved the first draft resolution submitted by the UAE to improve quality of life. This reflects developments that have been taking place in the UAE health sector in recent years. The WHA’s decision was welcomed by Emirati officials. Minister of Health and Prevention Abdul Rahman Mohammed Al Owais stated that this was "a great accomplishment that makes us feel grateful and proud . . . and exemplifies the civilized principles upon which the nation was founded to secure a better present and a bright future." He added that this international recognition would "amplify our efforts to promote global collaboration and improve people’s quality of life" and that the resolution enabled the UAE "to tell the world’s governments about our exceptional experience with quality of life."
Signs of Growth
The UAE has sought to develop its health sector in recent years with the goal of improving its capacities to deal with various challenges, particularly in light of COVID-19. The COVID-19 crisis underlined the need for countries to be prepared to cope with this kind of pandemic. The UAE health sector has witnessed significant development in various key areas in recent years, including the following:
1. Expanding health sector spending: The UAE has expanded its spending in the health sector in recent years. In 2016, it allocated AED 3.835 billion from the federal budget for healthcare. This increased to AED 4.2 billion in 2017, 4.5 billion in 2018, 4.4 billion in 2019, and 4.84 billion in 2020, which comprised 6.89% of the total 2020 federal budget. The state allocated AED 4.766 billion for health and prevention services in the 2022 budget, which made up 8.09% of the total budget.
2. Diverse international partnerships: In recent years, the UAE has sought to strengthen cooperation with other countries in the health sector and established various partnerships. On 10 October 2018, an agreement to facilitate cooperation and exchange of experience was signed between the UAE ambassador to Spain and four Spanish hospitals, including the Sant Joan de Déu Children’s Hospital, the University Hospital Quirónsalud, barnaclínic+, and Barraquer Ophthalmology Centre, all in Barcelona. This agreement aimed to promote the exchange of experience and expertise between the two countries in the medical field.
The UAE has also strengthened its health partnerships with the US in recent years. This was evident from the Abu Dhabi Health Services Company (SEHA)’s trip to the US in June 2022. The trip was undertaken by a delegation led by Abdulla Bin Mohamed Bin Al Hamed, chairman of the Department of Health in Abu Dhabi and sought to foster cooperation in healthcare fields. It resulted in the signing of a cooperation agreement between the Department of Health of Abu Dhabi and Johnson & Johnson Middle East to support Abu Dhabi’s vision to establish a regional center for clinical research trials and data collection.
3. A UAE strategy for health innovation and development: The UAE has been keen to bolster innovation and development in the health sector in order to strengthen its international standing and establish a sustainable health system that meets global standards. The UAE Ministry of Health launched the Innovation Health Strategy for 2019-2021, which was known as the "Innovation Pioneers in Healthcare" strategy. This plan focused on five key elements: leadership in healthcare, research and development, modeling a healthy and sustainable society, pioneering operations and services, and key potentials. The UAE government also announced various innovative projects, services, and initiatives such as "e-clinics" and telehealth as well as AI voice assistants for medical documentation.
4. Using AI technologies: The UAE has been seeking to intensively implement AI technologies in the health sector, including as part of a plan to reach 100% AI integration with health services by the UAE Centennial 2071. Robots were used for the first time in Sharjah to carry out cardiac catheterization procedures on 26 June 2014. In January 2017, robots administered medicine in the Fujairah Hospital in order to avoid human error or delay.
Robots were also used in 2017 in Rashid Hospital for the first time without any human involvement to fill 12 prescriptions; all the prescriptions were successfully filled in less than a minute. The Ministry of Health and Prevention also launched the MIDO app to remotely track patients’ health using AI technologies to obtain and analyze prognostic data that helps in early detection of complications or life-threatening conditions in patients.
5. Developing human resources: The UAE has also been interested in developing human resources in the health sector and introduced various initiatives and programs such as a training program for health sector work, a mentorship program for secondary school graduates, and international exchange agreements for health workers from different parts of the world. It has also signed agreements with several local entities to promote the exchange of experience and developing health care workers’ knowledge and skills. The UAE has promoted scientific research in the health sector through an agreement signed in March 2022 between the Abu Dhabi Centre for Technical and Vocational Education and Training and the Emirati Talent Competitiveness Council (Nafis). This agreement provides university scholarships for nursing, emergency medicine, postgraduate diplomas, and health aide diplomas from the Fatima College of Health Sciences, which operates as part of the Institute of Applied Technology in the Abu Dhabi Centre for Technical and Vocational Education and Training.
The UAE’s interest in developing the health sector is linked to various key objectives that have many potential benefits. The most important of these are as follows:
1. Preparing for future pandemics: The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of developing health capacities for dealing with future pandemics. The UAE appears to be trying to create an advanced healthcare system to ensure it is prepared for any new diseases that could impact workers in the UAE and its institutions. This could explain the UAE’s interest in implementing advanced technologies in the health sector and building various international partnerships that could provide innovative solutions for future challenges or problems.
2. Growing economic importance of health sector: In recent years, the UAE has become an international destination for medical tourism. It is expected that medical tourism in the UAE will grow to AED 19 billion by 2023. Investment in the health sector has also witnessed significant development in recent years. The Department of Economic Development in Dubai stated in May 2020 that the pharmaceutical and medical equipment industries were one of the key sectors in the Dubai Industrial Strategy 2030.
Government reports indicate that the UAE healthcare sector is expected to grow to AED 39.4 billion by 2025. It is likely that the healthcare market in Dubai will play a key role in driving the growth of the health sector in the Middle East and North Africa, which is projected to expand from $144 billion in 2020 to $243 billion in 2023. The average individual healthcare spending in the UAE was $1,200. The UAE also contains the largest free economic zone for healthcare in the world, which includes 160 clinical partners across more than 150 specialties and professionals from 90 countries. This indicates that there are extensive economic opportunities in the UAE health sector.
3. Building the UAE’s international reputation: There is no doubt that these major developments in the health sector will help strengthen the UAE’s reputation abroad. The health sector has witnessed important developments such as using robots in international hospitals and establishing the first proton therapy cancer center in the Middle East. The development of the health sector has also helped the UAE rise in international rankings. More than 85% of hospitals in the UAE have received international accreditation according to the WHO. The UAE leads the Middle East in 19 different criteria and benchmarks related to mitigating public health risks. It also performed well in 9 competitive global indices related to progress towards the third Sustainable Development Goal ("good health and well-being").
4. Promoting health diplomacy: The developments in the UAE health sector have supported the UAE’s diplomatic efforts through building its capacity to provide aid to other countries, as it did during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to official estimates, the UAE provided a total of 2,154 tons of medical aid, ventilators, x-ray and other screening equipment, and personal protective equipment (PPE) to 135 countries from the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 until July 2021. The UAE also donated approximately $10 million towards field hospitals in countries such as Sudan, Ghana, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Lebanon, and Jordan, as well as an additional $10 million of in-kind aid to the WHO.
In conclusion, the UAE strategy to modernize and strengthen its health sector has included substantial efforts to build its capacity for quick economic recovery and prepare for future pandemics. These steps have included integrating AI technology, which helps reduce human error, and continuing to attract further investment in its health sector according to the current and future needs of the UAE.