As the need for medical care grows in the Middle East, German clinics are becoming a popular alternative for Arab patients seeking health care abroad.
Germany is the medical tourism location of choice for Arabs
Mohamed is disappointed. The 19-year-old from Abu Dhabi had hoped to be allowed to use his walking frame without assistance. But according to his doctors, he is too weak on his legs to attempt it and his concentration is not at its strongest due to the fact that he is fasting for Ramadan.
Mohamed came to the RehaNova rehabilitation clinic in Cologne in September after the doctors in his native country could do no more for him. A serious car crash had left the young Arab unable to walk and with head injuries that impaired his speech.
The neurology and neurosurgery department at RehaNova has enjoyed a growing reputation in the Middle East over the past two years after initial problems with dealing with the cultural differences that arose from caring for patients from the Arab world.
An expert from Morocco brought in by the clinic management team initiated a program of education for the staff in cultural and religious differences and with the help of an interpreter and an Egyptian-born doctor, who are now permanent staff members, the clinic is now well versed in handling its patients from the Gulf States. In fact, it has helped encourage more: almost one in ten comes from the Arab world.
Advertising a low priority for German clinics
Word of mouth and third parties in the Middle East help promotion.
The popularity of German clinics in the Middle East does not come from excessive advertising. As a rule, the clinics do not actively seek Arab patients from the region, but rely on word of mouth and mediation agencies.
"We pursue no explicit advertising campaign for our clinic,” Professor Thomas Rommel from RehaNova said. “This does not make a good impression. We want to offer good rehabilitation services, and, hence, promotion is not a priority of our work.”
There are no current statistics on how many patients are in Germany although Prof. Rommel said there are about 125 patients from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Germany alone. It is a known fact, however, that since the increase in security and difficulty in visa applications in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the US, more Arabs have come to Germany whereas before they may have traveled to the US or Britain for treatment.
Guidelines for visa applicants
According to information from the Foreign Office, more than ten percent of the visas issued in the Gulf States in 2004 were awarded for medical reasons. To be successful, the applicant must prove that he can pay for the treatment, and he has agreed on an appointment with a hospital in Germany.
Arab governments often pay for patients' operations.
Few patients, however, organize or pay for the treatment themselves. In the UAE and Saudi Arabia, every citizen can put in an application for medical costs to be covered by the government. The health ministry of the respective land then looks after appointments in the hospital and the accommodation of those who escort the patient. Members of the family are sometimes accommodated at the expense of the government and can also sleep in the hospital if requested.
Ali from Dubai is one of the patients in Germany on a government ticket. While serving with the military, he stepped on a landmine and is now confined to a wheelchair.
"We have already been in Germany for a year. It looks like the visa will be extended. A copy of a new one has been sent from Dubai. We are glad that he lives," says his sister.
Popular but high standards expected
Conditions force some Arab patinets to seek help elsewhere
Although the technical standard is extremely high in many Arab countries, especially in Saudi Arabia and UAE, the quality of staff is sometimes called into question. High turnover among medical employees and a lack of hygiene are the most frequent reasons for treatment away from home.
The hospitals do their best to accommodate the needs of all the patients who arrive from the Middle East but of course, not everyone can be satisfied all the time. While medical tourism is increasing, it is not yet a booming industry due to the fact that many patients expect a lot more from the hospitals.
“We try and keep their expectations low,” said Prof. Rommel. “Many come with the wrong idea of what it will be like here in Germany.”
There is also competition for patients back in the Gulf. Dubai’s “Healthcare City” project is designed to keep patients – and their money – in the country. With its planned expansion of hospital complexes, special clinics and Rehab centers, it hopes to attract patients who would normally look to Germany for treatment. Until the project is complete, however, Germany will remain one of the Arab world’s favored medical tourism destinations.