MIDDLE EAST: Medical cities seek foreign academics

Medical cities are mushrooming in the Gulf, with Saudi Arabia and other states planning a major expansion of medical education to upgrade treatment, improve clinical training of doctors and maximise the region's share of the booming medical tourism market.

Saudi Arabia, for instance, is planning to establish five new medical cities that will become operational within five years, according to Muhammad Kheshaim, Saudi Under-secretary for Planning and Development, the Saudi Gazette reported.

The country has already established a number of medical cities including King Fahd Medical City, the largest and most advanced independent medical city in the Middle East, and King Abdulaziz Medical City in Riyadh, with its College of Medicine and College of Nursing and Allied Medical Sciences

In April 2010, the Saudi King pledged to build the US$266 million King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Medical City in Bahrain. Hosted by Arabian Gulf University it will focus on training doctors and sharing knowledge. It expects to be up and running before the end of the year.

Other developments include Oman's plans for a US$1 billion healthcare city near Muscat that will include medical colleges and hospitals as well as conference halls, hotels and shopping malls. In Kuwait, the consultancy branch of Hamburg's University Medical Centre is currently undertaking a feasibility study for a plan to construct the al-Shefa'a Medical City.

UAE has developed the US $1.8 billion Dubai Healthcare City as the world's first 'healthcare free zone', allowing owners of hospitals, medical schools or recreational centres to own up to 100% of equity. UAE also built the Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in 2005 in Abu Dhabi, which has several centres of excellence.

And Qatar has established US $604 million Hamad Medical city, the second-biggest healthcare development in the Middle East, which over the next three years will include a medical research centre.

Mohammed Kuchari, associate professor of microbiology at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, told University World News: "Medical cities are good tools for developing human resources in all administrative and health fields and promoting medical research and health studies, as it takes clinical treatment out of operation theatres and into classrooms and laboratories, as well as promoting the bench-to-bed approach that bridges the gap between research labs and patient beds."

Medical cities will also help to enhance the quality of medical education by establishing internationally-compatible medical curriculae and exchange of know-how, as well as contributing towards raising the standards of practicing medicine, Kuchari added.

They are also key to producing much-needed doctors in greater numbers. According to World Health Statistics 2010, the average ratio of doctors to population in the Gulf countries is 20 doctors per 10,000 people, compared to around 40 per 10,000 in Europe.

But despite enormous investments in educational, clinical and research collaborative initiatives with some of North America's most renowned medical schools and institutions - such as Weill-Cornell, Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins and Harvard - Gulf states' ability to recruit and retain highly qualified clinicians and academics remains a major challenge, according to an article by Kamal Badr of the American University in Beirut and Elie Aki of the State University of New York at Buffalo, published in BMC Health Services Research.

The shortage of medical professionals is a worldwide phenomenon but is particularly severe in the six Gulf Co-operation Council countries: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Oman.

Gulf states are trying to attract medical researchers and faculty, particularly from Arab and Muslim countries, by offering financial and social incentives.

For example, Saudi Arabia approved a law in 2007 to allow foreign researchers resident in the country, who have doctorates in medicine and those with masters in medical fields, to apply for Saudi citizenship. Scientists who have been in Saudi Arabia continuously for 10 years or more, and those with relatives who hold Saudi citizenship, will also be given preference.

In addition, this April Saudi Arabia announced a plan to recruit scores of experts to support its research programmes by issuing a free of charge visa for scientists.

It is not clear whether this will be enough to attract the large numbers of quality medical faculty and researchers that will be required now and in the near future.

Many are attracted by opportunities to practice rather than to be involved in medical education, training and research, and those opportunities were huge all over the region even before the Saudi-funded medical cities and other projects come on stream.

According to Kuchari, medical cities in the Gulf could contribute more to developing professional expertise if they worked together. "A medical network must be established among them and a regional accreditations body set up to ensure high quality of medical education, training and research," Kuchari said.

All articles in the Special Report: The Internationalisation of Medical Education

GLOBAL: Internationalisation and medical education
ASIA: World-class medicine pursuit drives collaboration
MIDDLE EAST: Medical cities seek foreign academics
INDIA: Medical education gets international flavour
CARIBBEAN: Medical schools battle to retain US access
SOUTH AFRICA: Cuba helps to train rural doctors
AUSTRALIA: Overseas doctors fill large gaps
FRANCE: Medical reform aims to fight 'human wastage'