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Healthcare is one of the most important service sectors in the UAE. In this article, we look at the growing medical tourism industry in the country and across the region. With increasing numbers of people travelling internationally for healthcare services, we will focus on the importance of insurance in managing risk for individuals seeking treatment, to the benefit of both patients and providers.
A high-growth market
According to a report from the Ministry of Economy published in 2022, medical tourism proceeds in the UAE stood at AED 12.1 billion in 2018 and are forecast to increase to AED 19.5 billion in 2023. This growth rate is reflected in the number of people visiting the UAE for medical tourism; 350,118 in 2018 and according to the Dubai Health Authority, these numbers increased to 630,000 to May last year for Dubai alone. The same Ministry of Economy report declares health tourism to represent 12-13% of all tourism to the country.
The demand for global travel has exceeded pre-pandemic levels, while health systems in many countries struggle to catch up with treatment backlogs. While this combination of factors stands to drive growth in medical tourism to the UAE and other destinations across the region, it is important also to raise awareness of some of the potential pitfalls that this surge in growth presents for both patients and providers. With proper planning, patients, providers and the wider economy can all benefit, by ensuring that as many of these issues as possible are considered and addressed in advance of travel.
Elective care and managing risk for a safe and successful experience
Medical tourism generally involves some kind of elective procedure – that is, a form of intervention that the patient chooses or their physician advises, that is not in response to a life-threatening condition or other medical emergency. There are many reasons why a patient might choose to travel, for example:
• Cost – the treatment sought may simply be far cheaper at their chosen destination, notwithstanding travel and other expenses, than equivalent treatment at home.
• Treatment availability - if the chosen treatment simply is not available to a patient locally, or waiting times are too long.
• Discretion - where confidentiality is of paramount importance.
Whatever the reason for travel, once the decision is made, perhaps the next most important matter to address is to ensure that adequate insurance is in place. For this, specialist medical tourism cover should be obtained – standard travel insurance policies generally do not cover medical tourism. A standard policy may even be invalidated by undergoing treatment, leaving no protection for any aspect of the trip.
When approaching the different insurance products on the market, it is important for the patient to have a policy that meets the required level of cover for the treatment sought, and not simply the cheapest policy available.
It is in the interests of both patients and providers that this is achieved. This is because if a patient needs to make a claim (for example, if there are complications requiring further treatment), then where the patient is not properly insured, they may be more likely to sue the provider. While there are many insurer-provider collaborations up and running worldwide that offer treatment and insurance packages with excellent levels of cover, where this is not the case, this risk should be addressed independently.
Depending on the risk profile of the treatment concerned, it is important for such providers to establish that a patient is adequately insured, and that policy terms have been met (for example, disclosure of pre-existing conditions).
Some important general features to look for include:
• the level of cover – this varies widely and should be considered carefully, based on the procedure involved and the state of health of the patient
• exclusions – common exclusions include pre-existing conditions, repatriation costs, lengthy aftercare or extended stays, travel to certain countries
• cover for a travel companion
• corrective treatment if required – whether during travel or upon returning to home country
• trip cancellation
• acute illness
• injuries that may occur during travel
noting that some policies, although permitting the act of travel for medical tourism, do not cover any risks associated with the actual treatment at all.
Finally, it is important to be aware that there could be difficulty in seeking corrective treatment in a patient’s home country, where an overseas elective procedure has gone wrong. In some health systems, especially public funded health systems (such as the NHS in England), the patient may have to pay for the corrective treatment personally. The importance of examining policy terms critically and carefully therefore cannot be overstated.
What this means for patients
Even where patients approach medical tourism as a bundled package of treatment plus insurance, which are commonly well-designed and aimed at the specific treatment in question, patients should still study the policy terms in detail to make sure that it is in line with their individual requirements and expectations.
This is even more critical when booking a procedure and insurance independently, in order that patients give themselves the best chance of a safe and successful experience. This is especially important where patients may also be exposed to the cost of any corrective procedures upon return to their home country.
What this means for providers
Providers that have entered into arrangements with insurers have done so because of the mutual commercial benefits in managing risk and liability between them, while enabling them to offer an attractive package to potential customers.
For those providers in the medical tourism market who either do not have such an arrangement in place, who may be new entrants to the market, or who accept patients from overseas for treatment without necessarily having targeted medical tourism, these providers can help to reduce their exposure by taking steps to ensure that patients they accept are adequately insured prior to treatment.
Working with patients in this way may also help those patients to think carefully about their individual cover requirements and be a useful part of the service provided.
Written by James Clarke, Of Counsel
James Clarke is a UK qualified lawyer who has been a partner in leading healthcare and life sciences sector specialist law firms for over 14 years and a sector specialist for over 23 years. In legal practice, James led a team of corporate and commercial lawyers specialising in healthcare and life sciences in a global City of London based law firm, providing a broad range of services to the healthcare and life sciences sectors both domestically and internationally. James also has extensive experience of working as a specialist project consultant to the sector.
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