Medical tourism : A new frontier

Clalit Health Services are poised to enhance medical tourism in the UAE

By Noa Amouyal

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Published: Thu 18 Nov 2021, 3:16 PM

Last updated: Thu 18 Nov 2021, 3:18 PM

When 6-year-old Veronika* was brought to Schneider Medical Center with a grave and rare immune disease, her parents weren’t sure if their little girl would survive.

“Before she came into the hospital for the treatment, we were very nervous and daunted by the fear of the unknown,” her father said. “Upon arrival at Schneider Hospital, we saw that Veronika was surrounded by professionals who knew what they were doing, and they cared about making her better. It was evident that she was in good hands, and it took away a lot of our apprehension.” Even in the darkest moments of the girl’s recovery, the Schneider team remained calm, professional and optimistic.

“Thanks to the team of PICU, she is a happy and active girl again with a bright future. Without the help of the PICU team, her recovery would not be possible. We can never thank you enough for all you have done, you saved her life, and there is nothing more important than a child's life,” he added.

What makes Veronika’s story unique is not her exemplary medical treatment, nor her recovery, but the fact that she received this world-class level of care from a country that she doesn’t not even reside in.

A Ukrainian citizen, Veronika is just one of many foreign nationals who come to Israel for top-tier medical treatment. Now, with the signing of the Abraham Accords, those in the UAE will be able to receive similar services in their country due to a visiting doctors programme and, thanks to telemedicine, even from the comfort of their own home. This is due to the MOU inked between Clalit Health Services and the Abu Dhabi Ministry of Health and Prevention which sought to enhance their already impressive healthcare industry with Israeli innovation and medical know-how. The deal will enable Clalit to bring its mission of providing high-quality, accessible, innovative and human services to every patient anytime, anywhere in the Emirati capital. Yoram Raviv, a partner at D Major - regional management consulting firm that provides strategic insights to companies with diverse business interests - was instrumental in making the deal a reality. “This is a partnership more than five years in the making but became a reality in the wake of the Abraham Accords. Clalit approached me to try to see how we can work with the UAE and we helped devise a roadmap to make it happen,” he said.

In signing with Clalit, DOH has embarked on a partnership with one of the largest HMOs in the world consisting of 14 hospitals (which conducts some 130,00 operations a year) - including the aforementioned Schneider Children’s. Half of the Israeli population belong to Clalit with the HMO servicing 52 per cent of the population including ultra-orthodox and secular Jews and Israeli-Arabs. Additionally, the organisation employs 48,000 people, including 10,000 physicians and 10,000 nurses. Most patient’s daily interaction is with their free-standing clinics, but Clalit also offers 820 pharmacies, 40 child health centers, 100 physiotherapy institutes,100 dental clinics, 60 mental health clinics and 50 women’s health centers.

Dr Orly Weinstein, Deputy Director, Clalit Health Services andHead of the Hospitals DivisionCredit - Clalit spokesperson
Dr Orly Weinstein, Deputy Director, Clalit Health Services andHead of the Hospitals DivisionCredit - Clalit spokesperson

As such, Dr Orly Weinstein, Deputy Director of Clalit Health Services and Head of the hospitals division-Clalit is embracing the many opportunities associated with a deal of this magnitude. “Whenever we talk about collaboration between countries, there is potential for development across various sectors. We’re looking at collaborating on special projects, exchanging information which can yield not only economic profit, but can bring about numerous medical benefits,” she said. So, what exactly does Abu Dhabi gain from this deal? Dr Weinstein sat down with the Khaleej Times to break down why this partnership is beneficial not only to the Emirati medical industry, but also to individual citizens. First, let’s look at the impact this partnership can have on a large-scale.

A treasure trove of big data

For the past 30 years, Clalit has diligently digitised the data of all its patients and is sitting on a robust and diverse array of medical backgrounds of millions of people from their birth to death. This gives the HMO the benefit of a generous sample size to look at trends and even predict medical outcomes.

“The greater the data set, the more detailed research we can perform,” Dr Weinstein noted. Thus, with this collaboration, Abu Dhabi can gain much from this knowledge. She did specify, though, that the data is completely anonymous and respecting their clients’ privacy is the ultimate priority.

Aside from furthering medical research, data sharing has a very real impact on the ground in the hospital. Say, for instance, a premature baby is ushered into the NICU. Every moment for this fragile and vulnerable baby counts. By testing a baby’s birth weight, urine samples, heartbeat and temperature, the data provides an accurate window of survival and gives doctors a warning as to when and how they should intervene. With Clalit’s research, doctors can see what is recommended in terms of treatment by entering the baby’s specific characteristics regarding its medical condition The data, then, can indicate what process to follow based on other success stories so the medical team can get to work and proceed with a treatment plan without losing precious time.

Visiting doctor’s programme

In addition to state-of-the art data, though, one needs experienced and well-regarded physicians to execute the treatment plan in question. While the UAE certainly has brilliant medical professionals, this MOU with Israel will supplement that knowledge with Israel’s own team of medical experts.

While the deal has just begun to take shape, the top brass in Abu Dhabi and Clalit are devising ways in which Israeli doctors can visit the Gulf according to the needs of local medical facilities in order to give Emirate’s access to their expertise.

The organisation also plans to facilitate seminars, training programs and workshops both in-person and remote so Israeli and Emirati physicians can exchange their knowledge and expertise. As a first step in this programme, Clalit is hoping to begin with pediatrics, by sending over doctors from Schneider Medical Center in the initial stages of the exchange. “Let's say there's a child with a complicated heart defect and perhaps there is a lack of knowledge in the UAE as to how to treat it. With this plan, a team from Schneider will take care of the child in question, perform the operation and post-op care,” Dr Weinstein said. A more long-term goal would be bringing the patients to Israel, so they could receive personalised treatment there. Rather than flying to Europe or the US, Abu Dhabi could experience world-class medical care close to home. Once in Israel, each Emirati patient will be assigned a case management worker who will direct them to the best facility to meet their needs. However, travel is not always possible - especially in today’s Covid era - which is why authorities are also exploring telemedicine options where a doctor based in Israel can give critical consultation to a patient in the Abu Dhabi. “Both Schneider and Loewenstein Rehabilitation Hospital are two of the biggest and best hospitals in the Middle East and we want Emiratis to have direct access to what they have to offer,” she added.

Loewenstein, for example, is one of the leading rehabilitation hospitals in the world offering spinal, brain injury, neurological, orthopedic and pediatric rehabilitation services. The facility boasts the highest number of rehabilitation physicians in Israel who are intentionally recognised leaders in their field. Additionally, the world-renowned Loewenstein Occupational Therapy Cognitive Assessment (LOTCA) device which measures basic cognitive skills required for everyday function and SCIM (Spinal Cord Independence Measure), a tool for functional assessment were developed at the hospital.

Meanwhile, Schneider, which offers specialised, multi-disciplinary care exclusively to children, has set the gold standard for excellence in their treatment for foreigners. The facility receives treatment requests from around the world on a regular basis and has healed children from Jordan, Turkey, Russia, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstahn, Moldova, Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Ethiopia, Eritrea and the Palestinian Authority.

The hospital believes that a secure child is more likely to rehabilitate faster, which is why it ensures that parents are with their children through every step of their treatment and assigns to them a patient coordinator to answer any question they may have as well as provide a place to sleep and shower in their child’s room during the course of their stay.

A fruitful road ahead

Since the Abraham Accords were signed last year, lay-leaders and experts expressed pleasant surprise that such a breakthrough normalisation deal was reached. The shared values, customs and advanced technological knowhow between Israel and Gulf States have made this partnership a natural fit, leading many to wonder why it didn’t happen sooner.

“Usually, we collaborated with hospitals from the US and Europe and working with Arab states was rare. A collaboration with UAE wasn’t even on our radar a few months ago. But the Abraham Accords presented us with a significant opening, an opportunity that must be seized,” Weinstein said. “After all, we’re a short flight away, we treasure the same things in life….we’re essentially cousins destined to work side by side.”

*The child’s name has been changed for privacy purposes.

— Noa Amouyal is a freelance journalist and media strategist based in Tel Aviv. She has written for publications like The Jerusalem Post, The Jewish Chronicle and Times of Israel.

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