The Cornerstone of the UAE's Economy

Rick Johnson, for HealthLeaders Media , March 11, 2008
Visiting the bustling United Arab Emirates, you can see the world's tallest building and the world's grandest shopping mall. These are testaments to the commitment of the UAE's leaders to recreating the region into one of the globe's financial powers. About two-thirds of its population is made up of expatriates, brought in to help expand the UAE's economic infrastructure.

These non-nationals work in retail, construction, hospitality, and--increasingly--healthcare. Smartly, the leaders of the UAE realize that dazzling skyscrapers and a robust financial exchange isn't enough. So they've focused on enhancing the healthcare system as a cornerstone of the region's economic development. Initially, the region's healthcare system will support other industries. But as plans for world-class facilities in Abu Dhabi and Dubai come to fruition, the region might someday compete for the world's medical travel dollars.

American expatriate David L. Printy, president and CEO of Oasis Hospital in the city of Al Ain and the emirate of Abu Dhabi, has seen much of the healthcare system's expansion in the region first-hand. When Printy was visiting the States last week, I had a chance to talk with him about some of the top challenges hospital leaders in the UAE face.

Compliance with quality standards: Like many hospitals in the West, UAE hospitals must meet increasingly stringent quality regulations. These standards are set UAE-wide and within individual emirates, the strictest being Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Many of these regulations relate to the quality of clinical staff. For instance, Abu Dhabi requires that nurses have two years of professional experience before they could be licensed in the emirate. And physicians must practice five years past certification and undergo a peer-led interview process. These extra barriers are meant to weed out fraudulent clinicians, which traditionally have been a known problem for many developing nations.

Increased healthcare utilization: Last year, Abu Dhabi mandated that employers provide health insurance. That effort, combined with the state-provided coverage, has led to a swelling of emergency room patients for Oasis and other facilities. "That has increased the utilization of healthcare dramatically," says Printy. "[It's] one of the highest [increases] I've experienced in my over 30 years of healthcare leadership."

Clinical staff recruitment and retention: There just aren't enough good doctors and nurses to go around. Printy recruits physicians from around the globe--from the Philippines to Chicago. It might not seem easy to woo expats, but he says there's a budding interest in international healthcare that's helping him attract high-quality clinicians. But, just like hospitals everywhere, it still takes a lot of effort and partnerships with organizations near and far to maintain the clinical staff. Part of that effort is dedicated to building the supply of local healthcare workers. "I am a firm believer that the quality of healthcare in any nation cannot be sustained without nationals taking leadership roles," says Printy.

Healthcare as a business sector: While the UAE works to address healthcare quality and coverage for its citizens, Printy and other healthcare leaders in the region continue to promote the advancement of professional healthcare management. Recently the American College of Healthcare Executives has given approval for a Middle East/North Africa chapter based in Dubai. "So now we're providing a framework for healthcare executives, and we have members from Egypt and Lebanon and all over the region," says Printy.

The UAE's ongoing investment into healthcare infrastructure and leadership is a sign of things to come for the region. "Leaders see a business opportunity in healthcare that supports the development of the country," says Printy. "They believe that over time they are going to compete with Singapore and other regions of the world for tourism healthcare."

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Rick Johnson is senior online editor of HealthLeaders Media. He may be reached at
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