Health care sector returns to strength
Just two years ago, the outlook for the health sector seemed bleak, with hospitals and health facilities reported to be under severe strain. However in just a short time it has seen a remarkable transformation.
A spate of problems both in terms of overburdened facilities and mounting chronic health problems, such as obesity and diabetes, saw the sector facing an uphill battle to meet demand. In 2010 it was estimated that the country had 1.4 hospital beds for every 1000 people - the lowest total in the GCC. And with the population having risen 176% between 2000 and 2010 to 1.7 million, according to government figures, a WHO study reported that government-run hospitals and clinics were “ill prepared” to cater for the projected 240% increase in patient demand by 2025.
Yet, just two years later, the health care sector looks to be in far better shape, and the outlook has brightened considerably. Since 2011, rather than drift inexorably towards a crisis of supply and demand, the government has prioritised health. This has involved a two-staged policy of administering short-term “cures” and long-term preventative measures; in the short term, boosting health care spending and provision, and in the long term, reducing the burden from expatriates and tourists to ensure nationals have priority access to facilities.
Qatar: Top health care spender
Indeed, in July 2012 it was announced that Qatar ranked as the top health care spender in the world, having invested up to QR12 billion on health care in 2011, registering a 27% increase from 2010. According to the newly-released National Health Accounts (NHA) report, this translates into an increase in per capita health expenditure from QR5,682 to QR6,988 ($1561 to $1920), between 2010 and 2011. At a time when austerity measures and cuts to health care spending are being adopted in Europe and elsewhere, this rise is particularly marked.
The spending has already had tangible effects in terms of delivering better standards of health, and it was also announced in July by the Qatar Statistics Authority (QSA) that improved health care services (together with progress in social, economic and other key societal indicators) have been a contributing factor in falling mortality rates. Indeed, the figure fell from 1.88 per 1000 in 2001 to 1.15 in 2010, according to the QSA. Moreover, figures show a decrease in infant, newborn, and children under-five mortality rates compared to the previous years. And earlier this year in March, a health care satisfaction poll covering the GCC by research group Gallup found that Qatar had the highest levels of patient satisfaction at 90%, followed in second place by the UAE at 79%.
According to Faleh Mohamed Ali, Assistant Secretary General for Policy Affairs for the Supreme Council of Health, the majority of this increased public health care spending goes to hospitals (57%), outpatient clinics (14%), health care management and financing system (8%) and other service providers (21%). In terms of hospital revenue, despite the decrease in direct expenditure of households on health care, from 16% of their total direct expenditure in 2010 to 13.8% in 2011, the overall value rose from QR1,548.6 million ($425.44 million) in 2010 in 2010 to QR1,663.5 million ($457 million) in 2011, according to figures released by the Supreme Council of Health.
The government expects this trend to continue until the social health care insurance system is implemented in 2014. This will represent a complete overhaul of the health system, and it is hoped that the measure will reduce the burden of health care provision - particularly stemming from the rising expatriate population - on the state. Under the Social Health Insurance (SHI) plan, the government will be responsible for insuring nationals, while the onus of insuring expatriates will fall on the companies that employ them. The SHI, which will be rolled out in five stages starting in November 2012, will focus on shoring up coverage for nationals while those who visit Qatar will be required to purchase health insurance when they obtain their visas.
Increasing the role of Private Hospitals
Furthermore, the state is seeking to broaden the role of private hospitals within the sector. For example, in July, the Supreme Council of Health allowed three private hospitals (Al-Ahli hospital, Al-Emadi hospital, and Doha Clinic) to conduct medical check-ups for people seeking extensions of family visits or obtaining family residence permits. Looking to “bring in” the private sector to reduce the burden on the public purse, a number of private hospitals are also being planned.
With the population of the GCC set to rise dramatically in the coming years, it seems likely that an increasing strain on health services will be a persistent regional theme going forward. For now, Qatar at least has achieved a remarkable turnaround in just two years, and is well placed to deal with rising demand for health care provision.
Per capita health expenditure
QR5,682 in 2010
QR6,988 in 2011