GOOD SPIRITS

Kuwait 2018 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | REVIEW: HEALTH

Kuwait is in the midst of healthcare reforms aimed at controlling its ballooning healthcare costs by adding capacity within the country and increasing preventative care.

Soaring hydrocarbon revenues over the past two decades have turned the Kuwaiti population into one of the world's wealthiest, and healthcare outcomes have improved accordingly. As of 2016, Kuwait's infant and child mortality rates, life expectancy, and immunization rates are well above average for both the region and the wider world. That's not to say the sector faces no issues, however. On the contrary, the shift to a more advanced and prosperous society comes with its own new set of challenges for the Kuwaiti healthcare system. A growing population means higher medical costs, and the increased incidence of cardiovascular diseases and cancer mean that new treatment infrastructure is needed to meet demand. Kuwait has embarked upon a healthcare reform plan as part of the government's New Kuwait 2035 strategy, which calls for building new hospitals and increasing capacity at preexisting ones, establishing new private healthcare options, and forming new international agreements to benefit from knowledge transfers.

The Kuwaiti population has doubled since the start of the century, reaching just over 4 million in 2016. Though the percentage of expat workers is below that of GCC neighbors Qatar and the UAE, expats account for almost 70% of Kuwait's population. As GDP per capita rose to among the highest in the world in the mid-2000s, Kuwait embarked upon a series of healthcare programs that led to widespread access for basic care. A total of 100% of Kuwaiti births in 2012 were overseen by skilled attendants, and the infant mortality rate was the 12th-lowest in the world as of 2012. The birth rate has fallen to 1.9 per women, just above the OECD average of 1.8. Despite this, Kuwait's population growth rate has remained above the OECD average due to decades of high birth rates and a steady influx of expats working in the financial, energy, and construction sectors.
The result of this demographic and social combination has been an increase in non-communicable diseases that mark the transition to a wealthy, industrialized economy. The Kuwaiti government's policy is to pay for its citizens' healthcare expenditures, and as cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular rates have increased, this has increasingly meant footing the bill for treatment in foreign states. In 2014, the government spent almost USD1.5 billion to fund 11,000 foreign medical trips. To nobody's surprise, healthcare expenditure per capita has risen in recent years and is well above GCC averages. Total health expenditure reached 3% of GDP, well below OECD averages but a growing source of concern as the nation's fiscal position has worsened due to falling hydrocarbon revenues.
With all this in mind, the Kuwaiti government has initiated a series of healthcare reforms aimed at changing unhealthy behaviors, improving the quality of care in the country, and cutting costs. The New Kuwait 2035 plan, the nation's sweeping development blueprint, includes healthcare as one of its seven targeted sectors. The three goals listed in the development plan are improving health service quality, reducing chronic non-communicable diseases, and increasing bed capacity in public hospitals. Progress is well underway on this last one, as the Kuwaiti government has begun a USD-108 billion initiative to add 3,500 hospital beds across more than eight different hospitals. All told, this healthcare expansion is projected to add more than 15,000 healthcare jobs. The construction projects are a mix of public-private partnerships and public projects overseen by the Ministry of Health.
To meet its first goal and ensure that the quality of care only improves with this expansion, Kuwait is developing new international agreements to improve training in the healthcare sector and benefit from the experience of other markets. India and South Korea are two countries with which the Kuwaiti government has held talks about knowledge-sharing agreements, and more are expected in the future. Kuwait also believes it can cut costs while expanding care by focusing on preventative care and enacting new legislation that brings new fees for expats. The government has begun an initiative to increase societal exercise habits and raise awareness of the risks contributing to diabetes and cardiovascular conditions in the hopes of bringing the rates of these diseases down among its younger population. Policy changes have also eliminated expat subsidies for hospital visits in an attempt to refocus resources toward citizens and better reflect the cost of hospital visits.