Oman's pragmatic response to worsening health problems in the region is beginning to take shape in its state-of-the-art Medical Cities.

Since HMSultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said came to power in 1970, Oman's Ministry of Health (MOH) has been responsible for striking achievements in establishing a viable public health infrastructure and raising the life expectancy of the country's citizens. Major communicable diseases such as polio, diphtheria, tuberculosis, and leprosy have been eradicated, but the growing prosperity and associated lifestyle choices of the general population, especially the young, are posing new challenges. In recent years, the prevalence of diabetes, cardiovascular problems, and obesity in GCC countries has emerged as a regional health crisis. Oman itself is among the world's 10 highest nations for the incidence of diabetes and impaired glucose tolerance. In response, the country is taking the initiative by developing integrated “Medical Cities."

Currently, Omanis and other Arab nationals tend to travel to the UAE or India for diagnostic tests. The Czech Republic offers many of the better post-transplant rehabilitation options. But if Oman's ambitious plans continue to develop at the present rate, then coming years will see a substantial increase in the number of medical tourists visiting the southern Gulf country. According to International Medical Center (IMC) CEO Dr. Mohammed S. Al Sofayan, the initial phase of the Salalah-based complex will be completed by 2016, at a cost of $1 billion.

The surrounding region of Dhofar will be able to avail itself of tertiary care services at the IMC. However, the objective of the project is much broader than this. “After we open International Medical City, nobody will need to go outside the country for treatment," explains Al Sofayan. “For transplant rehabilitation, we will be focusing on attracting medical tourists from the GCC, and our facilities will be open to the whole world."

The development will comprise centers for diagnostic services, dialysis, transplant operations, and rehabilitation. Moreover, there will be ambulance services, intensive and trauma care departments, a blood bank, a pharmacy, and an organ transplant donor registry, though the emphasis on international clients is clear. In choosing the location, proximity to the city's newly-expanded airport was central. Just 22 kilometers away, yet situated on an exceptionally peaceful 866 sqm plot on the coast in touristic Salalah, the IMC will represent the ideal destination for patients and their families. The complex will even be equipped with a short-stay four-star hotel for relatives and families.

The involvement of international partners has been an essential element of the project, with Methodist International taking responsibility for higher management, three potential Czech operators for the rehab area, and an imminent partnership with ASAN medical center in South Korea to supply organs for transplants. However, over the course of the process, IMC's most significant partner has been the government. Crucially, visa restrictions for visiting foreign patients have been considerably lessened, and the Ministry of Tourism will be providing health-tourism visas of three months to one-year duration. These will be possible to renew from within the Medical City, a move which will facilitate the reception of such tourists to the Sultanate.

Meanwhile, in Muscat, a second medical city is undergoing construction work. This will comprise a collection of facilities including a general hospital, a children's hospital, a head and neck clinic, and an organ transplant center, among others. Located on an enormous tract of land just 50km outside the capital, the Medical City will also provide dedicated medical imaging services and lab facilities.

With so much ambition and the rapid introduction of such a variety of advanced technology, Oman faces challenges in terms of supplying sufficiently trained staff to run the centers. The management of Muscat Medical City will be entrusted to a private company before the scheduled completion of Phase I in 2016. As it stands, 30% of doctors will be Omani, while the remainder will be sourced from abroad. The centers will become sustainable sources of jobs, however, and will contribute to creating an Oman which is known for its healthcare services. The developments form part of the governments Health Vision 2050, and the construction of world-class medical infrastructure is hoped to encourage foreign specialists immigrate and work in the sector. For a country that opened its last major hospital over two decades ago, the medical cities represent a confident step forward, for both the kingdom and the region at large.