Dubai, UAE: A physician from every Emirati family is the dream of a senior doctor and part of the long-term aim of authorities to attract more citizens into the ranks of qualified medical practitioners.
The increase in chronic diseases in the region, a growing demand for medical services and a transient expatriate population have made it increasingly necessary to encourage local talent to the profession.
"We’re encouraging people to go into family medicine and I’m aiming to have a family physician in each Emirati family, because that will help the community a lot," said Dr Ibtesam Al Bastaki, the director of health operations at Dubai Health Authority (DHA).
"This is my vision and, if this happens, then indeed we will have a strong community. It will also have positive results for the next generations because the link with the community will help to tackle high incidence of diseases."
Less than 20 per cent of doctors in Dubai and only about 10 per cent of doctors in Abu Dhabi are Emirati, according to government figures released in 2013.
In Dubai, there are about 80 Emirati general practitioners, and authorities believe it is crucial to increase the numbers at the primary healthcare level.
"Family physicians are the gatekeepers and we need more locals because, as doctors, their role will also be to advise, increase awareness and promote healthier lifestyles," said Dr Al Bastaki.
"This would be a win-win situation. The DHA provides training and research opportunities and we need family physicians to upgrade their skills so they do their day jobs and run specialist clinics for diabetes, and maternal and child health."
Diabetes, heart disease, obesity, hypertension and chronic respiratory conditions top the list of non-communicable diseases in the UAE, the International Family Medicine conference in Dubai was told last week.
Emirati doctors said more locals in the profession would encourage more people to come forward for treatment when they start to feel unwell, so that diseases could be caught early.
"We are from here and so there is a bond," said Dr Amal Al Saberi, a second-year family medicine resident at a DHA primary healthcare centre. "We have the same culture and so they immediately feel we will care for them better."
Her colleague, Dr Khuloud Al Blooshi, said: "They feel we are part of their family and they can talk to us very easily and tell us about their problems comfortably."
But the doctors said the experience and skills of expatriate doctors was also key in a multicultural society.
"Indian doctors know the lifestyle and diet of patients from their community and understand the language and the culture," said Dr Noora Abdulla. "So there should be a good mixture of doctors. But, of course, when we get older Emirati patients, they are like our grandparents and like being treated by us."
Knowledge about local customs would help to broaden understanding, doctors said.
"When expertise unites, whether local, regional or international, it is for the best," said Dr Sara Kamal Malik, a Sudanese expatriate who has worked as a family doctor at a Ministry of Health centre in Ras Al Khaimah for more than a decade.
"I learnt from my [Emirati] colleagues about the herbs local patients use. I used to advise patients that sweet potato is better than white potato and then found out that sweet potato is traditionally part of their cooking."
Regardless of nationality, a commitment to serve patients for the long haul is imperative.
Dr Abdul Karim Msaddi, the head of the neurosurgical and spinal department at the Neuro Spinal Hospital in Dubai, said local doctors were also advisers.
"Emirati patients sometimes need somebody who understands their lifestyle, background and family life," said Dr Msaddi, a Syrian who has worked in the UAE for 14 years.
"Just speaking Arabic is not enough. It’s also important to have a doctor from the same society, who lived here and grew up here - that is a big advantage."
© The NationalFeb 2014