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In the UAE, Calls for Health-Care Education to Expand

DUBAI—At 25 years old and weighing 154 pounds, a man lying on an operating table was described as having an average body type.

But, in other terms, there was nothing normal about the “man,” whose heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, age and weight could instantly change with a few adjustments directed through a computer. That’s because the figure wasn’t actually human at all, but a wireless mannequin.

“We can make him whatever we want him to be—or it can be a ‘her,’” said Ian Ballard, who manages the medical simulation center where the mannequin—and many more like it—are used to help train medical professionals.

The simulation center sits inside Dubai Healthcare City, a sprawling healthcare free zone that was launched in 2002 by the ruler of Dubai and the UAE vice president, Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum. It is home to two hospitals, more than 120 outpatient medical centers, diagnostic laboratories and a dental college. Soon, the complex will also host a new medical college for undergraduates—set to accept its first students in September 2016—as part of a wider push to expand medical education alongside rising healthcare demands in the United Arab Emirates.

“The whole idea is to create sustainable, quality workforce for the emirate of Dubai and the nation and the region,” said Amer Sharif, managing director of Dubai Healthcare City’s education division. “It’s best to train your workforce in the place that they are going to work… So, we are trying to create home-grown, local talent with international standards.”

The healthcare sector in the United Arab Emirates, where the population is largely comprised of expatriates, is dependent on a migrant workforce: Only 4 percent of nurses in the country, for instance, are Emirati nationals, Sharif said.

But while some efforts to expand education in healthcare target Emiratis, others, such as the new medical university, include non-nationals. “The whole idea is to incentivize this profession and make sure they have quality education at the doorstep of their homes,” Sharif said.

In addition to the new university, at least three new medical colleges and five nursing schools will open in anticipation of rising healthcare needs over the next decade, local news media reported in January. Dubai alone will need an additional 8,000 hospital beds, 7,323 doctors and 8,510 nurses by 2025, Essa Al Maidoor, the director general of the Dubai Health Authority said, according to local media.

The growth of the health care industry in the UAE and other Gulf states is driven by growing populations and per capita incomes, aging populations, high frequencies of lifestyle-related diseases and ambitious medical infrastructure projects, said a 2015 global report by Deloitte. A rising number of “medical tourists” from the other countries seeking healthcare at a discount are also coming to the United Arab Emirates amid a government push to make it a medical destination.

The changing nature of the healthcare sector is among the reasons why it is important to create a local talent pool, said Marwan Abdulaziz Janahi, Executive Director of TECOM Investments’ Sciences Cluster, in Dubai. Some of the early deaths prevalent in the United Arab Emirates are predominantly lifestyle-induced. “Why is that happening?” Janahi said, speaking at a December roundtable discussion held in Dubai. “We need to do more research, clinical trials to really understand this. Without the right talent pool, it’s simply not possible.”

Janahi said universities are already responding to market needs: Some higher-education institutions that had only offered basic science courses since moved into more advanced degrees. Manipal University Dubai, for example, was the first in the country to offer a Ph.D. in Biotechnology.

“Although a top-down approach is important, what I personally believe is: Anything that is market-driven makes more sense,” Janahi said. “So, I think universities are reacting and adapting, which is good—it’s very encouraging.”

Gulf Medical University, which already offers medical, biomedical, dental, pharmaceutical and physiotherapy programs at its campus in the emirates, is considering offering additional programs. Skilled professionals are needed in areas including technical support and medical technology, said Gita Ashok Roj, provost of the university.

Another focus in the country should be on developing research, she said.

Firdous Khan, chair of the School of Life Sciences at Manipal University Dubai, said hospitals should be be willing work with higher-education institutions to train physicians as medical education expands. A growth in allied sciences and pharmacy courses is also vital for development, he said.

“You need to have growth in all the different areas,” Khan said. “You need to have nursing courses, you need to have pharmacy courses—These are very important for the development of the sector.”

One main obstacle, however, is limited interest among students to study critical disciplines. While the medical program at Gulf Medical University, for instance, is always in demand, there is a shortage of interest in the life sciences, says Roj. “We spend all the time making doctors and nurses, but the life sciences—they are the ones which are lacking,” she said.

Efforts to combat the problem are kicking off.

The Abu Dhabi Education Council grants a scholarship to every student studying medicine at the federal United Arab Emirates University, according to Arif Sultan al Hammadi, Executive Director of the council’s Higher Education Sector. Students at another federal institution, the Higher Colleges of Technology, can receive stipends and employment guarantees if they enroll in nursing, medical imaging, pharmacy or medical laboratory science programs, according to Muhadditha Al Hashimi, executive dean of the health sciences faculty at the university.

“The challenge is really to convince our young nationals that this is a field that is going to be rewarding—financially rewarding and emotionally,” she added.

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