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Oman 2017 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to HE Dr. Ahmed Mohammed Al-Saidi, Minister of Health of Oman, on the development of a domestic pharmaceutical industry, the longer-term health plan, and the future of PPPs.

How would you assess the development of the domestic pharmaceutical industry over the last year, and what more needs to be done?

Last year in the domestic pharmaceutical industry there was a royal decree that regulated pharmaceutical work in Oman. This has given pharmacies double the space to sell non-prescription products, so they can generate more income. As a result, it has reduced the prices of a majority of drugs, some by more than 50%. There was a decision by GCC countries to unify the price of drugs in all member states. Oman had some of the highest prices for drugs in the region, and now prices are much cheaper. Our aim is to have more of this industry based in Oman. We had visits from international pharmaceutical companies, both from the region and the West. I hope they will study our proposals to have a base and produce medication in Oman. Establishing a strong pharmaceutical sector in Oman will be the gateway to East Africa and to Iran, as well as the GCC. If any investor in healthcare, pharmaceutical companies, or hospitals is serious about investing in Oman, we can provide them with a plot of land as part of a medical city. I have 5 million sqm available purely for healthcare facilities and logistics support. In pharmaceuticals, we still import more than 93% of our medications. We want medication security. I am hoping to see more international companies coming to Oman to have a base. The facilities are available and the regulations are much simpler than they used to be.

What are some of the new objectives pursued by the Ministry of Health as part of the government's ninth Five-Year Plan for the country?

This is my sixth year as the Minster of Health and my goal is to improve the quality of healthcare in Oman. When I was appointed in 2010, the Ministry of Health had just over 4,000 doctors. Today, we have more than 8,000. The number of nurses and professionals has doubled as well. Between 2010 and 2015, we introduced 80 new clinical services, and we opened more than 16 health centers and facilities. We opened a cardiac center in Salalah, in Muscat, added a genetics center, and we expanded the oncology center. We just signed a contract to build four facilities, and there are about 16 more in the pipeline to be built by the end of 2016. This is part of our plan, but our concentration is still building the capacity in human resources. More than 70% of our doctors are expatriates. We need to increase the number and quality of Omani doctors. In addition to the two medical schools in Oman, we started sending Omanis to study medicine abroad. Our target is 50 students per year. The medical schools here graduate about 220 doctors per year and our target is about 350. Also, some projects that were not implemented from the previous plan, if the financial situation allows, will be finished. For example, there is a large hospital in Salalah, one in Suwayq, Falah Hospital, and in Khasab. The need for these four hospitals is definitely there and they will be done. We have almost 95% coverage for primary healthcare in the country, which is one of the highest worldwide but we are still aiming to reach higher.

Do you see the health sector as a good location for future PPPs in Oman?

Absolutely. I would start with the medial city. It will be open for private investors to build, own, and operate there. At the moment, the private sector does not have the capacity to provide the services I want to buy. For example, we are still buying renal dialysis. We have units all across the country, but the demand is increasing. We want to encourage the private sector, but it is slow to respond. We started buying services from the private sector to encourage them to expand. Secondly, we provide them with statistical information about the needs of the country and locations for healthcare expansion. Everyone wants to be in Muscat, but there are certain parts of Oman that are heavily populated, and the private sector is still lagging behind. In addition, there are other incentives, like plots of land. Land applications for developing healthcare centers can be processed within 24 hours. If they prove they can provide high-quality services, we will definitely buy more from them. I am optimistic that private healthcare in Oman will continue to grow. If more of our hospitals are trusted by the population here, we can treat patients here instead of having them go abroad and keep the money in the country. I am also hoping to become a hub for medical tourism for GCC countries and for the huge populations of India and Iran. If someone comes to Oman, the visa regulation is easy, the environment is peaceful, and the facilities are attractive.

How does the Ministry work to safeguard the population against new diseases and epidemics?

We have had outbreaks of Hepatitis A and also Crimean-Congo fever. We abide by international laws and report every case that must be reported to international agencies like WHO. Protecting the public from outbreaks of diseases is the responsibility of the country and the Ministry of Health plays a leading role, but it cannot be achieved by us alone. Both of these outbreaks are infectious diseases. One is an animal-to-human disease, and there is a necessity to ensure that animals imported to the country are clear of diseases. Concerning the outbreak of Hepatitis A, we did not vaccinate our children for this before because it was not considered a burden on this country, but we are considering it now. The vaccination rate in Oman otherwise is almost 100%. There is still a threat in Oman of some international viruses, such as Zika. We take steps to prepare just in case we have these outbreaks. That said, non-communicable diseases are more costly. Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and chronic respiratory diseases constitute about 63% of causes of deaths in Oman and the region, in addition to traffic accidents. Unfortunately, our lifestyle habits are not great. Physical inactivity, unhealthy diets, and tobacco use are chief concerns. The Ministry of Health cannot fix these problems without other government agencies. I cannot increase the tax on tobacco or tax fast food, for example. We can ask people to be more active physically, but we need to provide them with facilities to go out and exercise.

What is your vision over the next 12 months?

For the coming 12 months, I want to take into consideration the limited resources we have now and to retain the good standard of healthcare we have achieved. If you go to any country where governments spend less than 3% on healthcare, you will have a waiting list. Today many of our waiting lists are almost zero. Knee replacements used to be 2.5 years, now you may only need to wait 4-6 weeks in Muscat, or one week in a local hospital. Oman's position worldwide in healthcare is highly appreciated. For example, among 90 countries assessed by the WHO for management of vaccines, Oman was rated number one worldwide. Oman is now used as an international training center in this regard.