Arab uprising spurs
renewed focus on
patients from the region
Health tourism to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a significant revenue
for the kingdom, but the violence in Syria is deterring Western patients from
cost-effective healthcare in the country and spurring a renewed focus by Jordan
attracting patients from the region. Shaun Benton reports.
Jordan, whose reputation as a centre of
affordable excellence for skilled healthcare,
including reconstructive surgery, has
been building steadily over the years, is
now feeling the impact of Syria's drawnout
The number of so-called health tourists,
and not only from its neighbours in the
region and Arab north Africa, but also
from the United States and Europe have
for some years now been steadily
increasing, drawn to this relatively stable
kingdom by the high quality and cost
effectiveness of medical treatments.
Medical tourism has, in fact, become an
important part of the kingdom’s economy.
By 2010, it was – according to the Oxford
Business Group, a think tank – earning
about US$1 billion in revenues from foreign
patients requiring a range of treatments,
some of it using sophisticated technology. In
the same year, this contributed 4% to the
country’s gross domestic product. The World
Bank recently ranked Jordan fifth in the
world as a medical tourism destination.
Seen in the context of other contributors
to Jordan’s annual GDP of about
US$30 billion (US$36.8 billion at
purchasing power parity, while US$28
billion at official exchange rates), this is an
invaluable contribution to the country’s
economy and is more or less equivalent to
the entire agriculture sector.
Industry contributes 30% to Jordan’s
economy – one of the smallest in the
Middle East, with poor supplies of natural resources – while services, which of
includes medical services, contributes by
far the biggest share: 65%. (All figures
according to estimates made by observers
of its economy for 2011.) This is no small
achievement for this country of 6.5 million
people who have a ratio of 2.45 physicians
for every 1,000 people.
However, this was before internal
conflict in its troubled neighbour, Syria,
which has rapidly escalated to the horrific
and tragic proportions we see today. This
has forced a revised earnings forecast for
Jordan as foreign patients – mainly from
the US and Europe – began to weigh in the
possible dangers – or at least, perceptions
of danger – of travelling to Amman for medical treatment.
Awni Bashir, the president of the Private
Hospitals Association (PHA) in Jordan, was
recently reported as saying that Jordan saw a
sudden drop of about 20,000 health tourists
as the ‘Arab Spring’ crept ever nearer.
In 2010, Jordan received about 200,000
health tourists. Due to what he called
“uncertainty generated by the so-called
Arab Spring”, this number dropped to
about 180,000 the following year.
It is now taking pro-active measures to
shore up its market share and ensure that
its sophisticated medical sector does not
take too much damage from the seemingly
intractable situation next-door. These
include participation at various international medical tourism conferences in
region and the hosting of several medical
congresses, among other initiatives.
One shining star that the country is
keen to show to the world is its 300-bed
multi-specialty hospital in Amman,
prosaically named Jordan Hospital, which
is increasingly popular with fastidious
American patients hoping to save money
on exorbitant medical operations and
procedures in the United States, while
expecting similarly high levels of quality in
the treatment they receive.
In a major boost to the hospital and
ability to tap into this market, it received
an award in 2011 from the American
Heart Association/American Stroke
Association for the quality of its treatment.
American patients now comprise
the 10th biggest category of foreign visitors
seeking medical treatment, who are now
drawn from 58 countries.
And Jordan Hospital is not the only major
player – there is the King Hussein Cancer
Centre which provides top-of-the-range
treatment to cancer sufferers and is now recognised as one of the best in the world for
this specialised and difficult treatment.
The Arab Medical Centre is another
leader, as is the Specialty Hospital, known
to be well-equipped, while the Al Khalidi
Medical Centre also offers sophisticated
treatments for lower costs than patients
would otherwise pay if they received
similar treatments at private medical
centres in Europe or the United States.
Also sought after by foreign patients is
the Farah Hospital. Fitted with the latest
technologies, it focuses on assisted reproduction
for couples battling fertility problems.
This, along with so-called “preimplantation”
and genetic manipulation,
is a burgeoning and lucrative market in the
health sector in industrialised countries.
With fewer Americans willing to come
to a region embroiled in violent strife, it
makes sense for Jordanians tasked with
marketing the country's array of medical
services to renew their focus on regional
markets – and this is what they are doing,
according to reports.
Their efforts seem to be paying off,
with reports citing an increase of 26% in
medical visitors from the Gulf
Cooperation Council (GCC) states in
the first eight months of 2011.
In a sign of the country’s relatively advanced
state of healthcare development, the
industry there is in a position to afford a
certain degree of altruism, with sympathetic
surgeons providing free, life-restoring reconstructive
surgery to children and adults badly
wounded in the conflicts in nearby Iraq, and
now Syria, as well as other countries caught
up in the Arab uprising.
Like the international medical nongovernmental organisation, Médecins
Sans Frontières – doing life-saving work in
Jordan – there are a number of independent
healthcare operations doing good
work in the kingdom. One of these is
located at a hotel in a suburb in Amman
and has been treating the seriously
wounded coming from Egypt, Libya,
Yemen, Iraq, the Palestinian territories and
most recently, Syria. It was set up in 2006
as a temporary programme to help victims
of violence in Iraq. However, the
continued arrival of victims of violence
from the ‘Arab Spring’ made its closure
untenable and it has since been expanded
by 40%, according to a report broadcast
recently by BBC's Newsnight programme.
Patients – the forgotten victims of
Middle East violence – are arriving as terrorised casualties of explosions, bullets,
rockets, grenades, shrapnel and collapsed
buildings and their injuries are so severe
that, often, three, four or more operations
are performed on each patient.
One surgeon at the centre, Dr Majd el-
Raas, a Syrian national, says he works hard
to avoid amputations and says he would
rather perform several operations to save a patients’ limb or limbs. As a
he regards amputation as “like a failure”
but acknowledges that the overriding aim
is to save a human life.
There is “a huge waiting list”. Among
the patients are a man from Dera in Syria
who had been tortured, another Syrian
shot by a sniper, a young man from
Baghdad with a shattered leg, a Yemeni
whose wife and two-year-old daughter
died when a rocket hit their car. He
underwent four operations in Yemen
before arriving in Amman for further
procedures, involving the transplant of a
bone from his leg to his arm. He has
attempted suicide three times already and
is carefully watched by the centre’s staff,
who are keenly aware of the psychological
effects on victims of the violence
they have experienced.
Another, a child from Baghdad, lost his
left leg, left eye and half of his face in a
bomb blast, and has undergone 25 operations,
with one involving muscle transferred
from his back to his mouth – one of
the most complicated surgeries in the world.
The centre – one in ten of whose patients
are children, who are schooled in a makeshift
classroom in a nearby hotel – exposes the
reality of the horrors of violence engulfing the
region's troubled countries and yet, at the
same time, reveals to the world the hope and
optimism to be found as compassionate, dedicated
individuals do their best to make a
difference, one person at a time.
Yet for these doctors, it is not easy,
either: “The hardest part,” Dr el-Raas told
the programme, “is seeing the patient on
arrival … especially children.”
of upload: 26th Jul 2012