Commodore, Royal Saudi Navy (Retired)
About a month ago, I was at King Fahd International Airport to bid farewell to my sister who was being transferred from Saudi Aramco hospital to one of the best hospitals in the world, John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Saudi Aramco had her son and a British nurse to accompany her to the United States. The company has paid all expenses. My sister does not belong to the elite class. She is just an ordinary citizen and wife of a former middle management Aramco employee. Due to her ailment, she needed to be in a more advanced medical facility. Just a few weeks ago, the Saudi health minister was sacked when he failed to give a satisfactory answer to a citizen who wanted a hospital bed, as he couldn’t afford to go to a private hospital. Just a day after the sacking of the health minister, Minister of Defense Prince Mohammad bin Salman ordered the health officials to make arrangements for the citizen’s treatment in a top German health facility. I wonder why incidents mentioned above don’t become talk of the town. Well the reason is simple. Such things are a routine occurrence in the Kingdom. If a patient can’t be treated in the Kingdom, he or she is transferred to the best health facility across the world. At any given time, there are hundreds of Saudi patients being treated in hospitals abroad. And the patients belong to all segments of the Saudi society. Interestingly, the family member accompanying the patient is also paid a daily allowance. The bottom line is that the Saudi government is always willing to take care of the health of its citizens. Saudi Arabia allocates the highest per capita for the health care sector. So, if this is the case, then why do we really need health care reforms and why many people are not really satisfied with what we have even though our medical facilities are one of the best in the region? As for the government-run hospital, the services are considered one of the best and they are free of charge. Today, Riyadh will host a three-day C3 Saudi-US Healthcare Summit. The summit will focus on ways to introduce reforms in the health sector. Introducing reforms in any sector is a painstaking job and when it comes to the health sector it becomes even more difficult. Obamacare could be cited as a good example. In the case of Saudi Arabia, sometimes the situation becomes very puzzling. The reason is that the health sector in the Kingdom has unlimited resources and receives generous support from the government. The main hurdle in realizing the true potential of the Saudi health care system is its inability to effectively manage resources and facilities. Unlike in the past, major Saudi hospitals are failing to attract experienced health professionals especially from the West and if they manage to do so, the attrition rate is very high. Let us be frank, social life in a large hospital is very boring with no activities such as little movie theaters for the staff or nice places for social gatherings. Hospital staff work long hours and they need some kind of entertainment to make their lives at the workplace bearable. And one more thing, which is very important to look at, is the size of Saudi Arabia and the need for less central control over all medical facilities in the Kingdom. There is a need to delegate more authority to the provincial health departments with a proper system ensuring transparency. There is a great need for well-qualified and well-trained officials to run the hospitals, as it is considered one of the most difficult jobs in the world. We in Saudi Arabia should understand that the government couldn’t do it all. And this is true in every country. Rich Saudis have to participate in the process for the improvement of the health sector. Many philanthropists in the Kingdom concentrate on building mosques but they should realize that building a hospital is also a good deed. One important point that should not be ignored is ensuring transparency in the health sector. Effective mechanisms should be introduced to root out corrupt practices so as to further improve the quality of health care services. It is a multi-billion industry in the Kingdom, which makes it all the more important to ensure transparency in the use of public funds. Perhaps, this could be the first step to be taken to further reform the health care sector in the Kingdom, as health care and corruption don’t mix. Written by Abdulateef Al‐Mulhim. Exploiting Local Health Sector’s Full Potential reprinted with permission of Arab News and Abdulateef Al‐Mulhim.