Dubai Recruits American Medical Leaders

Harvard and the Mayo Clinic are among the big-name institutions locating in Healthcare City.

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DUBAI—When citizens of the United Arab Emirates or its more prosperous expatriates need high-end medical care, most head overseas for treatment. "Enough people fly outside to fill a 130-bed hospital every day," says Manaf Afyouni, the chief operating officer for University Hospital, which is being built on an old downtown cricket ground as part of a larger development called Dubai Healthcare City. "We want to build the hospital of the future."

The plans for Dubai Healthcare City go significantly beyond simply building a new hospital. The idea is to build a city within a city—a free zone with its own custom-built set of regulations to license doctors and inspect clinics, as well as tight qualifications for who can open businesses or healthcare facilities. "We're creating a mini-Ministry of Health for Dubai with licensing and other functions," says Afyouni.

Perhaps Dubai's most important partner is Harvard Medical School, which is building an institution for post-graduate medical education and fellowships. "What people in the region can't get is good post-graduate education," says Robert Thurer, the chief academic officer for Harvard Medical School Dubai Center. "Now, many have to leave the country, but the opportunity is limited, and even more limited after September 11 with new visa restrictions." Harvard's school is scheduled to open in the first quarter of 2009.

Thurer is busy hiring physicians and researchers to staff the facility. "Dubai has the advantages of having a diverse population, being very open and accessible, so it's easy to bring people in," says Uzma Shah, a U.S.-educated pediatric gastroenterologist working as the director of research at Harvard's Dubai center. "There's the financing and the need. Now you just need the know-how and that's where we come in."

One major beneficiary of Harvard's center will likely be Arab women studying to become doctors. Zahra Saeed Baazwi is an Emirati who serves as the center's director of education. Like most Emirati physicians, she studied overseas—at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and in Britain. "Many medical students in the UAE are women, but due to family reasons or obligations, many are not available to travel abroad for their residency," she says. "We are not as mobile as our male counterparts."

She says that Harvard's program will help more Arab women complete their training. "I had to go abroad for every level of education," she says. "I'm hoping my children don't need to do that."

The 400-bed University Hospital, slated to open in 2011, will operate separately, but every doctor will have to be a member of Harvard's institute. "That puts academic quality into the hospital," says Thurer. "The only way to have sustainable quality healthcare is to have education and research associated with it."

Boston University has also set up shop in Dubai Healthcare City with a dental program, the Mayo Clinic opened an office to offer diagnostic care and noninvasive treatments, and other schools have been in negotiations with Dubai.

Dubai Healthcare City is owned by Tatweer, a colossal government-owned developer, which is also building Dubailand, a massive entertainment complex. As part of the development, Tatweer is erecting an 850-bed hotel and residential unit, four floors of which will be directly connected to University Hospital. Each floor will have a nursing station, and the hotel will be marketed as a destination for people in the region who need advanced medical care and their families.

"The aim is to serve the community as a primary market but the region as a secondary one," says Afyouni, who estimates that half of University Hospital's patients will ultimately fly in from nearby countries. "Our vision is an extension of Dubai's, which is to be a regional hub."