Gulf governments, flush with petrodollars, are investing in infrastructure on a massive scale: railroads, airports and also health care facilities. GCC countries are building about $14 billion worth of hospitals and clinics. But even before those come on line, authorities are having trouble getting enough caregivers to treat patients who are currently coming in, much less those in the future.
As Gulf Builds Hospitals, A Staffing Crisis Deepens
By ANGELA SHAH
DUBAI — For Jane Griffiths, director of nursing at Rashid Hospital in Dubai, some of the stiffest competition for nurses comes from her own backyard.
“We’re all fighting for the same kind of nurses,” she said. “We have a bit of a disadvantage because the pay scale for nurses is less” in Dubai “than in Abu Dhabi and in all the other Gulf countries like Qatar.”
The Gulf region is in the middle of a $14 billion spending spree to build hospitals, clinics and other health care facilities as Gulf residents seek more care at home, while in the past they would often travel abroad for such services. But health officials worry they may not have the staff — especially frontline workers like nurses — to treat the patients coming in.
Helmut M. Schühsler, chief executive officer of TVM Capital MENA, a health care private equity company with heavy investment in the Gulf, said, “The problem has been and will remain to be filling the infrastructure with high-quality professionals: senior-level professors, specialists, nurses.”
Gulf countries have long imported much of their labor forces, including health care workers, to support their economies. But with the World Health Organization estimating that there is a shortfall of 4.3 million health care personnel globally, some of these workers are choosing to stay and work in their home countries.
Further complicating the personnel issue is the transient nature of Gulf countries’ work forces. According to a recent report by the Health Authority in Abu Dhabi, about 15 percent of doctors quit their jobs last year in the United Arab Emirates, while about 13 percent of nurses leave their positions annually, figures that are higher than in Europe or the United States.
Such turnover is expensive. Each time a position must be filled, money must be spent on recruiting and training the new people, and paying for their travel and relocation to the Gulf, since most of these workers are expatriates.
The severe nursing shortage, in particular, has spurred a variety of initiatives to lift the number of homegrown personnel, even as government officials search for skilled medical labor abroad.
These efforts include work by the U.A.E. Nursing and Midwifery Council, established by ministerial decree in 2009. Its goal is to create and enforce standards for nursing education, licensing and practice across the Emirates to promote Emiratis in the work force and lessen the dependence on foreign labor.
The U.A.E. Health Ministry reports that just one in 25 nurses is Emirati. Ideally, that ratio should be one in four, it said.
Ms. Griffiths said there were also cultural barriers to Emirati women choosing the profession. Treating men who are not related to them, which nurses must do, is not considered appropriate in Islamic culture, especially among conservative families, she said. “There is a significant social reluctance by local Emirati families to allow their daughters to go into nursing.”
At Rashid Hospital, Ms. Griffiths said she has only 12 Emirati nurses among her roster of 1,450 nursing staff. Over all, she said the hospital is short about 140 nurses. “It’s slightly better than it has been in the past,” she said. “Basically we have wards that are not open.”
Still, standard-setting groups like the Nursing and Midwifery Council are important because they offer a seal of approval, of sorts, for those who belong to them, said Jack Montgomery, a senior consultant at the executive-search firm Stanton Chase in Dubai.
“You would assume they had certain standards, that people who were members of such an organization were of a higher caliber,” he added. “Even as a consumer, it makes me feel much more comfortable.”
The council’s efforts have been joined by more grass-roots initiatives as well.
Dr. Azad Moopen, who runs DM Healthcare, a network of hospitals, clinics and pharmacies across the Gulf and in India, said he hoped to get an edge on attracting highly sought medical staff by allowing them to be part of a profit-sharing program, a practice not very common in the health care arena.
In the meantime, Mr. Schühsler said, health care workers can be encouraged to stay in their jobs longer if the authorities create enriching professional communities as well as construct the physical buildings that house medical facilities.
“So not only do they treat patients, but they also participate in clinical trials. They are allowed to do research,” he said. “They want to make a name in the scientific community, not just the medical world.”