'Closer than Europe, cheaper than the US'

Coming soon to Israel: Medical tourism from UAE, as part of new hospital deal

Sheba Medical Center says Israel will become popular destination for treatment, due to geographical proximity to Gulf state and convenience of having many Arabic speakers on staff

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A man wearing a mask bearing the national flags of America, Israel and United Arab Emirates, watches a ceremony after an El Al plane from Israel landed in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Aug. 31, 2020. Nir Elias/Pool via AP)
A man wearing a mask bearing the national flags of America, Israel and United Arab Emirates, watches a ceremony after an El Al plane from Israel landed in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Aug. 31, 2020. Nir Elias/Pool via AP)

Israel’s biggest hospital expects to see an influx of medical tourists from the United Arab Emirates, following a deal with a large Emirati investment fund.

Seizing on opportunities opened up by the new Israel-UAE normalization agreement, Sheba Medical Center has just signed a memorandum of understanding with Abu Dhabi-based APEX National Investment. There will be a special ceremony in Abu Dhabi later this month which will be attended by the UAE’s minister of health and members of the royal family.

The signing is a “great indicator of the potential of the Abraham Accords,” said Avi Berkowitz, White House Special Representative for International Negotiations, referring to the Israel-UAE treaty.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said: “It is fitting that the first significant partnership between Israel and the UAE is in health care. The Abraham Accords are already making the Middle East safer and more prosperous.”

A peace logo in Arabic, English and Hebrew is painted on El Al flight 971 on August 30, 2020 ahead of its maiden direct flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi (El Al spokesperson)

Yoel Hareven, director of Sheba’s international division, told The Times of Israel that the agreement with APEX has provisions for the establishment of significant medical tourism from the UAE to his hospital, which is expected to begin in earnest when travel restrictions enacted for the pandemic are relaxed.

“There is limited knowledge and lots of complicated cases that are sent outside the UAE, so now they will have a new solution that is closer than Europe, and cheaper than the United States,” said Hareven.

Yoel Hareven, director of the international division at Sheba Medical Center (courtesy of Sheba Medical Center)

“It’s welcoming, as so many medical staff speak Arabic. It can be almost home away from home,” he added.

While the UAE promotes itself as a destination for people seeking some medical treatments, it also has significant outgoing medical tourism.

Hareven said that as well as bringing UAE citizens to Israel for treatment, the deal will take Israeli doctors there for stints in its medical system.

The document just signed by Sheba and APEX lays down a rough agenda for cooperation, with details still to be fleshed out in detailed contracts.

Hareven said it is agreed that, aside from medical tourism, they will cooperate in three other areas: coronavirus, training, and innovation.

“In the fight against COVID-19 they will be adopting technologies, like telemedicine solutions, that have been tested in Sheba,” he said. “We may also advise and educate on field hospitals for the UAE.”

Training and education will consist of Israeli professionals helping development of the UAE’s healthcare, according to Hareven. In terms of innovation, Sheba will replicate the strategy of its ARC Innovation Center, which encourages health-related startups by offering them collaborations in the hospital. It will work with APEX to set up an innovation project for the UAE.

One of Sheba’s innovation projects: the “hospital room of the future,” built in the Israel Center for Medical Simulation at Sheba Medical Center (courtesy of Sheba Medical Center)

Professor Yitshak Kreiss, director-general of Sheba Medical Center, said that talks aimed at connecting his hospital to the Gulf long predate the new Israel-UAE peace agreement, having begun at the Peace to Prosperity Workshop which took place in June 2019 in Bahrain.

“The agreement with APEX represents the culmination of our year-long effort to establish ties with the Gulf, in the aftermath of the meetings I had at the ‘Peace to Prosperity Conference’ in Bahrain,” he said, referring to the US-organized conference in which it unveiled the economic side of its Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

Kreiss added that the agreement will “change the dynamics of health care and innovation in the UAE,” and “act as a harbinger of ‘peace and prosperity’ in the Gulf region and beyond.”

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