Growing incidence of lifestyle-related diseases, coupled with high drug prices, are driving up healthcare costs at astounding rates in the Middle East and North Africa, with experts urging preventative measures to reverse the trend.


Healthcare costs in the Gulf region are expected to rise at a greater rate than inflation according to a recent report by Mercer Marsh Benefits. In the last year, the cost of providing medical treatment in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) climbed 13.6 per cent, and financial analysts predict costs to soar by another 14 per cent this year. Certain ailments such as respiratory conditions, circulatory diseases and endocrine illnesses, along with noncommunicable diseases, are the primary factors driving up costs.


Specifically in the UAE, noncommunicable diseases account for 76 percent of deaths, and in recent years the country has seen a rapid increase in diseases such as diabetes and obesity. Statistics show that diabetes is not only restricted to highly developed countries, but is now becoming a global epidemic. In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has the highest prevalence of diabetes at 31.6 per cent of the population, followed by Oman (29 per cent), Kuwait (25.4 per cent) Bahrain (25 per cent), and the UAE (25 per cent). This prevalence places considerable strain on health care budgets. (Source)


Healthcare costs are also influenced by drug pricing; according to a recent report by British medical firm Medbelle, the UAE ranked alongside Germany, but still a way behind the US, as one of the top three most expensive countries to buy drugs in a study of 50 nations. Further contributing to rising state healthcare expenditures in the region is government willingness to cover the costs of these expensive medicines as opposed to shifting costs to consumers. Jose Antonio Alas, general manager for Eli Lilly explained the regional differences in reimbursement: “There is a difference between out-of-pocket markets, India and Pakistan being perhaps the best examples, and then fully reimbursed markets like Turkey, UAE and Saudi Arabia, where there is a willingness to pay for such medicines.”


Key stakeholders in healthcare are urging governments, employers and citizens to provide more screening, adopt preventative measures and take personal responsibility for their health. The UAE, in particular, is looking to combat the effects of noncommunicable diseases on healthcare expenditures through prevention programmes, having already teamed up with Novo Nordisk Gulf for a collaboration aiming to facilitate innovation in obesity treatment, digitalise patient health through smart apps, sponsor research and training, and organise awareness campaigns.