GETTING BETTER

Oman 2018 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | REVIEW: HEALTH

High levels of public investment have built Oman's healthcare sector up from scratch over the past four decades, and new private entrants to the market should allow for more efficient allocation of services.

Oman's hopes for the future depend in large part upon the health of its young and growing population. Almost half of the Sultanate's population is under the age of 20, thanks to high birth rates and advancements in healthcare that have led to improved outcomes over the past few decades. Once well behind global healthcare standards, a concerted effort to raise investment and give all Omani citizens healthcare has had a dramatic effect in raising performance across core metrics. The continued importance of the sector has brought it to the attention of international investors and healthcare providers eager to offer services to one of the world's fastest-growing markets. Oman's government, eager to further raise quality and increase coverage, has been encouraging private investment in the hopes of further strengthening the sector and easing some of the fiscal load it places on the government.

When Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said rose to power in 1970, Oman had only two hospitals and an average life expectancy of just over 50 years. The Ministry of Health, founded early in the 1970s, took control of the healthcare sector soon after and began to establish government-funded hospitals and health centers, focusing on modernization and increasing access to care in rural regions. Since its inception, the Ministry of Health has been the primary healthcare provider in the country, operating some 90% of all hospitals and employing most of the country's healthcare professionals. Coordinating almost all healthcare decisions through a single agency has helped Oman see improved efficiency in decision making and distribution of resources, as everything from medical schools to acquisition and distribution of drugs to preventative and rehabilitative care is run through the Ministry of Health. The results of this system speak for themselves: today Oman has more than 6,400 beds across 69 hospitals, with that number expected to grow to more than 7,600 total beds by 2020. The average life expectancy has risen to more than 77 years, above the MENA average and just two years below the average for OECD members. Other key healthcare indicators such as infant mortality rates and deaths from cancer, diabetes, and cardiac disease have all likewise improved dramatically in recent years to place Oman above regional averages and on par with some of the world's more developed countries.
Well aware of the need for continued growth and development, the Ministry of Health is now focusing on continuing to improve technological capability through a move to increase private investment. The public funding system that has built up the Omani healthcare system has been overwhelmingly successful, but there are concerns that it might be unsustainable in a shifting economic landscape. The fall in oil revenues in recent years has placed new stress on the Omani government, and with healthcare expenditures projected to rise by 12% per year through 2020 according to investment banking advisory firm Alpen Capital, the sector's looming financial issues show no signs of abating anytime soon. Efficiency has become the name of the game for the Ministry of Health, which saw its budgetary allocation drop from USD4.2 billion in 2015 to USD3.4 billion in 2016.
Technology is at the core of the ministry's efforts to streamline services; the public healthcare sector went through the process of digitizing all records in 2014 and more recently has begun installing cashless transaction systems that will allow patients to pay with credit cards.
On the private sector side, a number of regional healthcare providers have begun to work in tandem with the government to meet growing demand. Omani-owned Bardr Al Samaa is the largest private healthcare provider in the Sultanate, with eight hospitals in high-density areas, and Saudi Shifa Al Jazeera group has announced plans to invest USD260 million over the next five years to build 13 medical facilities. This is only the beginning of a larger comprehensive plan to link the private and public sectors, with government leaders envisioning a future where the private sector can grow to no longer need public sector resources.