The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia currently boasts the largest market for healthcare products and services in the Arabian Gulf. It is considered the epicenter of advanced medicine in the region. Boosts in annual government budgets, increased foreign investment and expertise are just a few of the key ingredients paving the way for the kingdom’s health care.
However, despite opening up to the private sector and establishing partnerships with international firms, the Saudi government continues to be the kingdom’s main financier of health-related expenditures. With a budget of $18.32 billion allocated to health-related matters for 2011, this figure represents a 12.3% increase over the $16.32 billion for 2010, and accounts for 11.8% of the country’s spending, a quantity expected to increase to $20 billion by 2016.
With this budget, the Ministry of Health aims “to provide the highest possible quality of healthcare services to people throughout the kingdom through a wide range of services and facilities and well-trained staff,” as affirmed in the government’s Vision for 2020 statement.
Its overall plan “is to provide quality comprehensive healthcare services to all individuals, families and communities throughout the kingdom.” One initiative recently announced by Saudi Health Minister Dr. Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Rabeeah is the construction of 33 new hospitals across the kingdom.
|“WE AIM TO PROVIDE THE HIGHEST POSSIBLE QUALITY OF HEALTHCARE SERVICES TO PEOPLE THROUGHOUT THE KINGDOM THROUGH A WIDE RANGE OF SERVICES AND FACILITIES AND WELL-TRAINED STAFF”|
GOVERNMENT OF THE KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA, VISION 2020 STATEMENT
However, there is pressure on the government to deliver more. In a rapidly growing and ageing population like that of Saudi, where the average national is overweight and modern lifestyles often engender poor health, boosts in healthcare budgets alone will not meet the demands of the population without affecting the country’s economic progress.
The kingdom’s growing population is the main cause for the heightening demand for health care. The Saudi community is expected to increase by 20% and reach 30 million by 2016. The elderly alone, currently one million, are expected to amount to 2.5 million in the next 15 years. All age groups will experience increased rates of growth, in part due to increased life expectancy resulting from improvements of the health care system.
Illnesses referred to as “lifestyle diseases” are another cause of worry among Saudi Arabians.
The socio-economic transformation of the country has introduced new habits into society that can lead to obesity, hypertension and diabetes. Statistics reveal that cardiovascular diseases account for 22% of deaths in Saudi Arabia each year.
There is an increasing need to modify trends of stress, cigarette smoking and lack of physical exercise; otherwise the number of deaths caused by such factors will certainly increase.
While the Saudi Ministry of Health is tackling the situation by concentrating part of its activities on preventive and curative primary care, there are many issues that need to be addressed, and the government has expressed its interest and need to attract foreign partners.
One of the first measures taken by the Saudi government to further private care participation was the introduction in 2005 of mandatory health insurance for non-Saudis residing or working in the country. It applies to all private-sector employees, though in time it is expected to extend to all employed Saudi nationals.
The health sector is key to the government’s privatization programs. The Ministry of Health’s idea is to restructure and move away from being the main provider, to being the regulator of private services.
And so, at a time when the market is ripe for investment, many healthcare companies have already picked up on the chance to participate in Saudi Arabia’s initiatives to improve the country’s health care services, which are seen by many as promising business opportunities.
GE’s healthcare division, GE Healthcare, has set up in the kingdom, and invested in three strategic service support centers. The company is working alongside government initiatives with the contribution of tools that allow earlier and faster diagnosis. It is also equipping hospitals with the required knowledge and technology, such as imaging and information technologies to patient monitoring systems.
One of GE Healthcare’s continuous localization initiatives is setting up a strong Saudi workforce and creating more employment opportunities, alongside a transfer of knowledge and expertise through training and education. In 2010, they had trained over 150 skilled professionals.
The company’s contributions have not gone unnoticed, as it currently generates over $1 million in revenues.
Saudi healthcare service demand is expected to continue rising in the next few years. Privatization, the modernization of hospitals and technology, and training the local workforce are expected to increase local productivity to meet the nation’s demand, without hampering its economic drive.