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29 November 2023

Making healthcare accessible to all

Laila Al Jassmi has the health of the nation on her shoulders. (PATRICK CASTILLO) 

By Aimee Greaves

For Laila Al Jassmi, access to basic healthcare facilities in Dubai should be everyone's right, no questions asked.

As the woman leading the charge at the funding department of a recently formed health body that has made it mandatory for everyone in Dubai to have health insurance provided by their employer, she is determined to change the way residents of the emirate access health services.

"We know there are a lot of people not able to access healthcare. They might be able to afford the medicine but can't afford to visit a doctor or pay for X-rays but the new system will change this," she says.

The new health funding system, managed by the recently formed Dubai Health Authority (DHA), officially kick-started yesterday and will address the growing need for sustainable healthcare in Dubai. Under the system, it is compulsory for all residents in the emirate to register with a clinic. This outpatient care practice will become their primary port of call for all medical problems, except emergencies, when people can go directly to a hospital A&E department. Patients can choose their own clinic and do not have to pay to register.

The aim, explains Al Jassmi, is to free up specialists and allow them to concentrate on specific cases rather than people booking their own appointments at hospitals as is currently the case.

"A patient must go to an outpatient care practice where the general practitioner will only refer them to a specialist if necessary," she says. "People used to go straight there with a headache and lots of tests were done as they were scared of having a brain tumour. The whole process is very expensive and in the end they find it is just a headache."

DHA was founded after it was decided to have two separate bodies to provide and regulate healthcare in Dubai. While the Department of Health and Medical Services (Dohms) used to do both, DHA will now oversee strategic healthcare and maintain the quality of service and delivery. This initiative is also in line with the strategic plan for 2015 laid out by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai.

As the Director of the Funding Department, Al Jassmi is also responsible for overseeing the management of the programme and ensuring every resident is registered. "The beauty of this is that we are treating everyone the same, whether they are an Emirati or expat," she says.

"The cost of healthcare is increasing. The United States, for example, spends $1 billion [Dh3.67bn] a year and Europe isn't far behind. We want to be competitive in the Gulf as well and attract patients. The population of Dubai is also growing, so if we want to have a high standard of healthcare we need to ensure we are able to fund it now and in the future."

To be phased over the next 12 months, the government's existing health card scheme will stop by the end of 2009 with all employers required to transfer to the new system by then. Overall, there is a four-year plan in place, which may increase benefits in 2010.

Although it is free to register, everyone will have to pay a fee each time they visit a clinic. While different clinics may set prices for services, the system will ensure that individuals earning less than Dh5,000 a month will pay no more than Dh25 for each visit and nothing for the healthcare services the scheme covers. Meanwhile, everyone will still have direct access to free emergency and trauma services and all acute care will be provided by hospitals, funded by the health benefits contribution (HBC). Sponsors, however, will also be required to pay the HBC.

A graduate of the College of Allied Health Science and Nursing in Kuwait, Al Jassmi returned to her native UAE to begin her career at Dohms. "My Dad was keen for me to be a doctor but I didn't see myself as that. I wanted to work in healthcare but not as a physician. He didn't have the chance to go to school or college but speaks fluent English thanks to being in business," she says.

After taking up health management instead as a career, she headed up the department at Rashid Hospital in 1990. From there, she rose through the ranks until she became Director of Planning and Statistics in 1995.

Determined to succeed, Al Jassmi started a Master's degree when she was already nine months' pregnant with her first child. "Two weeks after she was born, I sat my exams and I'm very proud of it now," she smiles, reflecting how the support of her husband made it possible to leave her daughter for two or three days at a time to go to Abu Dhabi for lectures.

"When you work in healthcare you have to upscale yourself. I've done that and want to be successful in every project I have because I feel like I owe Dohms for the support they have given me.

Now living in Mirdif with her husband and four children, she continues to have the same passion for her job as she had all those years ago. "Having a job and being a mum is very challenging but I've proved I can do it thanks to the support I've had."

The eldest of two girls, and after her father instilled in her the importance of taking care of herself, she also manages to find time to catch up with her girlfriends in between her other responsibilities but says she wouldn't have it any other way.

"I like socialising, making friends and building relationships and because of all the demands at work where I have a responsibility to the public, I like to live a lot at the weekend."

Lifestyle CV

Name: Laila Al Jassmi

Nationality: Emirati

Family: One daughter, three sons

Lives: Mirdif

Holidays: Europe, Far East, United States

Favourite country: Italy for the culture

Hobbies: Swimming, gym

Social philosophy: Make the most of your spare time