HEALTHY ECONOMIES NEED HEALTHY BODIES

Saudi Arabia 2016 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | FOCUS: HEALTH 2030

The government is trying to deal once and for all with the pressing challenges of the healthcare sector. A government reshuffle and long-term plans are drawing the guidelines for the sector's development, but wider private-sector involvement is necessary for Saudi Arabia to achieve satisfactory results and meet international standards.

Last May, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, ordered a reshuffling of the structure of the government, moving toward the profound and ambitious Vision 2030, the plan recently revealed by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The decree restructured five ministries and merged two, while six ministers were relieved of their duties and three of them assigned to other areas.

Dr. Tawfiq Al-Rabiah, the previous Ministry of Commerce and Industry, was appointed as the Minister of Health, which in recent years has become one of the most challenging ministry positions in the Kingdom—Dr. Rabiah will be the seventh Minister of Health since just 2014.

The new minister will face several challenges, ranging from inaccessibility of health services and high costs of medication to shortages of manpower. People living in remote areas of the country still have to travel to city centers to receive specialized or advanced treatment. To address this problem the new minister plans to set into motion a plan to establish some 2,000 new health clinics throughout the country, a plan that had for many years been put on hold. In addition, Saudis should expect to see epidemic diseases such as the dengue fever and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) eradicated in the Kingdom. Dr. Rabiah will also have to deal with the acute shortage of manpower and beds, as well as with the medical malpractice that has tarnished public perception of state-run hospitals.

The health sector has been a top priority for the government in recent years, and despite the economic slowdown due to lower oil prices, the Kingdom has maintained a high level of spending in the sector. Health and social affairs have been allocated the third-largest share of the 2016 fiscal budget, with 13% of total spending, led only by military and security services and education.

Conspicuous investments over the past decade have prompted tremendous improvement in healthcare services, but more has to be done to allow infrastructure, the number of hospitals, and quality of equipment to meet international standards.

The ministry has already taken some necessary steps, such as intensifying training courses for doctors and nurses, developing an electronic financial system, and reaching an agreement with the Cooperative Health Council on applying the Cooperative Health Insurance System to all public health centers. The government's goal to offer its citizens world-class medical facilities and services will be implemented over 18 different initiatives, and is expected to cost the Kingdom more than SAR23 billion. However, implementing the new insurance system, along with planned investment's and funds raised through conferences and exhibitions, is expected to generate some SAR4 billion for the ministry by 2020.

The public sector will continue to play its role as the planner and regulator of the healthcare sector, now with the intent to facilitate the transition toward a new system in which the government will be the owner and supervisor of the healthcare centers, while the private sector will be responsible for management and operation.

The ultimate goal of the Crown Prince's National Transformation Program (NTP) is to raise the private sector's involvement in healthcare to 35% over the next five years, a 10% rise from current levels. The NTP has allocated SAR6 billion to support the sector's transformation, which will be achieved by encouraging public-private partnerships and funding health insurance. The ministry has ambitions to privatize 295 hospitals and 2,259 health centers by 2030.

With an aging population, low healthcare penetration, and an increase in lifestyle diseases (Saudi Arabia has one of the highest percentages of diabetes in the world), the Kingdom is positioned to sustain a strong demand for healthcare services. Driven by these goals, government spending is set to increase, but the role of the private sector will prove vital and necessary to the health industry's development in the Kingdom.