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Sickbed musings on UAE medical care

Wanted – a smart insurer to provide reasonable health insurance for older people in the UAE

An advanced robotic system at Burjeel Hospital in Abu Dhabi. The UAE has some of the best medical infrastructure in the world - and some of the most expensive health insurance Wam
An advanced robotic system at Burjeel Hospital in Abu Dhabi. The UAE has some of the best medical infrastructure in the world - and some of the most expensive health insurance

I had a long time to think on medical matters, having succumbed recently to the new variant of Covid-19 doing the rounds in Dubai and been bed-bound for much of the past week.

The new strain goes under various names, from Pirola and Eris to BA.2.86 and EG.5. But whatever you call it, it’s a vicious little virus, easily the worst of the three infections I’ve suffered since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.

It has all the nasty symptoms of the previous ones – headache, cough, fever, sore throat, etc – but also bringing with it a profound sense of lassitude and even depression. I found it difficult to concentrate on anything serious, definitely not work matters, during my increasingly gloomy confinement.

Now recovering (I think), the downside is a feeling that I’ve missed a whole week out of my working life and will have to play catch-up for the next month. The upside – though not enough to compensate – is that I’ve rewatched all five seasons of Breaking Bad.

And I have not consulted a doctor at all. The first symptoms came on, I did a lateral flow test and the two dreaded lines slowly morphed into focus, and I knew immediately what to do: rest, hydration, and medicine to deal with the symptoms.

But, accustomed as we have become to life after Covid, I didn’t feel any great need to see a medical professional. It got me thinking about the state of the medical sector in the UAE, especially for a man like me, well into what Frank Sinatra called “the warm September of my years”.

When I first got here in 2006, one of the things on the expat list of priorities was to “get” a doctor, and I signed up with an amiable Irishman whose treatment for almost any kind of complaint was to read more Joyce, or Yeats. It often seemed to work.

But I don’t really “have” a doctor anymore, in the sense of a family general practitioner to whom I can go to discuss minor ailments and conditions. Most of the routine stuff is done either online or in a quick conversation with the local pharmacist.

Because it is required by law, I do have medical insurance – for myself, my wife and my 14-year-old daughter. But I went for the absolute bare minimum of cover to fulfil the obligations of a residence visa application, knowing that we would probably never make a claim against it.

Here we get to the nub of the matter: the incredibly high cost of medical insurance in the UAE for a man of my relatively advanced years.

I recently surfed the options and found a range of quotations, the highest of which was a staggering AED145,000 ($39,000) per year for a full bells-and-whistles policy from a big international medical insurer based in the UK. The average cost from 12 providers was around AED75,000 per year for a man of my age.

So, I’ve taken out what might be called a “trust and hope” policy. Trust that nothing serious will happen health-wise in the coming years, while hoping I’ve always got enough money in the bank to pay my own way at a decent hospital should my health luck turn.

It’s a calculated risk, but one which for me seems preferable to shelling out year after year for top-quality medical insurance that will (probably, fingers crossed) never be used.

But risk, trust and hope should not be the qualities on which national health policy is run, especially in a country like the UAE, which is now allowing people to retire here, and which is issuing “golden visas” to people of my age group.

I could find no detailed analysis of the comparative cost of medical insurance for my age group around the world, but Dubai does regularly appear in the top five of health insurance costs for all age groups globally.

Isn’t there a smart insurer out there that can see a gap in the market for health insurance for older people in the UAE? Surely there must be a business model that would make it work at a reasonable level of premium.

The UAE has some of the best medical infrastructure in the world, and is attracting top talent in the health sector as it seeks to become a centre of medical tourism.

Now it needs to develop a medical insurance architecture to match.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He also acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia

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