UAE emerges as a medical hub

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UAE emerges as a medical hub

Patients are drawn to the UAE because treatment is relatively cheap compared to Western countries, the medical expertise is good, and it has cultural and environmental draw cards.

By Amanda Fisher

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Published: Tue 25 Mar 2014, 9:25 AM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 5:42 PM

For millions of people living in countries with malfunctioning or sub-par health systems, often their only option for what could be life-saving treatment is to head overseas. Hospitals in the UAE, such as Ras Al Khaimah Hospital, are increasingly providing answers.

Victoria and Henry Odita with Dr Parvez Ahmad and Dr Anup Panigrahi at RAK Hospital. — Supplied photo

Dr Anup Panigrahi, RAK Hospital Minimal Invasive Surgery Department head, has been with the hospital for five years, overseeing an increasing number of foreign patient cases.

He initially began at the hospital as a visiting surgeon, coming from his Delhi hospital on regular visits before relocating permanently. He says there are a growing number of overseas patients the hospital is treating, from all around the world — places like Tanzania, Ethiopia and Nigeria.

The hospital treats up to 1,000 international patients each year, which makes several cases each day, and has dedicated offices in various countries throughout the world, with a big focus on East and West Africa.

“It is medical tourism, RAK Hospital is going to be one of the international destinations…I’m getting patients from Ethiopia, from Iraq, from Afghanistan.”

Dr Panigrahi says patients are drawn to the UAE because treatment is relatively cheap compared to Western countries, the medical expertise is good, and it has cultural and environmental draw cards — plus the food is better for foreigners than some other places.

Dr Panigrahi enthusiastically heaps praise on the team of doctors he leads at RAK Hospital.

“It’s 2014, you can’t compromise on quality, and my management is very strict on quality.”

Quality is especially high, compared to countries like Nigeria, he says. “I visited their country, they have a very poor system.”

But it is not because the country is poor — “if you compare to India, they’re rich” — but because government money is not going into the right services.

“Honestly, the government is doing a big job in this, but they need to recruit good doctors, the government needs to take a step.”

Dr Panigrahi says RAK Hospital is planning on teaming up with doctors in Nigeria, to help train personnel in Nigerian hospitals – that way those Nigerians who cannot afford to fly overseas for healthcare will also get access to better standards at home.

Fellow specialist surgeon Dr Parvez Ahmad agrees: “The UAE is emerging as a very good health care destination for all these countries…the UAE has a lot of potential, very good doctors, many hospitals are getting international patients, they are getting to be a good destination for all these patients.”

The pair often team up to treat difficult cases, the ones that primarily come in from overseas.

Recent case

A recent such example was Nigerian woman Victoria Odita, a classic case who did not fit within the health system of her own country. “I was in serious pain,” said Odita.

After months of agony, the 37-year-old put her faith in God, flew to Ras Al Khaimah, and risked her life on the surgery table.

The mother of four suffered a hernia after her third caesarean section birth — but it wasn’t until she was pregnant with her fourth, which would also be a caesarean section, that doctors informed her of the danger.

“I was in serious pain, emotional pain, serious pain. I was carrying that hernia for a very long time.”

Speaking from her home in Nigeria, Odita told Khaleej Times she could not properly care for her children, could not lift them, or play with them well, due to her condition. As a result of the hernia, her intestines had come out of their casing and wedged between her abdominal muscles, causing immense pain.

But there was a problem: doctors in her native country did not have the proper equipment to perform the necessary laparoscopic surgery. While open surgery was an option, this carried huge risks, especially given Odita’s other health issues.

Odita has a BMI of more than 50 (the normal range is between 18.5 and 25), and her heart was pumping at just 25 per cent capacity (more than 60 per cent is considered normal).

Dr Ahmad says the case was among one of the most challenging he has dealt with.

“It was a very, very big hernia, she was obese, also she was having this heart problem and along with that, a big hernia. That was a challenge to take this case and do very fast because we cannot give anesthesia for very long because of the incapacity of the heart to pump properly.

“It was a very high risk case as we were operating on a lady whose heart was not pumping properly.”

Dr Ahmad says prior to the one-hour surgery, the doctors had to explain the risks to Odita — that she could wind up dead on the operating table.

“Definitely there’s a risk involved in this, but we explained we should go ahead and take the risk because she was young and we could not leave her like this her whole life.”

Dr Panigrahi, who led the surgery, says in 23 years in the field, Odita’s case was one of the worst hernias he has ever seen.

“It was very high-risk surgery, I really had to (operate) very fast.”

Odita says while she was nervous about the surgery, which cost her family Dh32,000 including flights, she had to have confidence.

“(The doctors) didn’t hide anything from me…they told me surgery was high risk…I believed that something good would come out of. “I put my faith in God.”

She says while doctors are of a good standard in Nigeria, hospitals face a chronic lack of necessary equipment to perform up-to-date surgical procedures.

She and husband Henry researched different hospitals overseas, including in India, but hit on Ras Al Khaimah because some of Henry’s family had been previously, and were pleased with the results.

Though the surgery, which kept her hospitalised for about five days, took place earlier this month, Odita says she is now fully recovered.

“I’m very, very happy and very lucky. I’m a happy woman, to see my kids back and see myself back.” She is even considering coming back to RAK Hospital in a few months’ time for gastric bypass surgery.

Henry Odita says he could not be more pleased with the way the hospital treated his wife and family; not only medically, but personally.

“They are wonderful people. (The doctors) are wonderful surgeons. “They are proper doctors’ who have respect for human beings…they attend to you 100 per cent. When you are nervous, they calm you down.”

And such cases of medical tourists are expected to keep increasing – with the UAE bracing itself for a wave of new medical cases, with a raft of new hospitals due to come online across the country.

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