Swiss hospitals begin operating internationally

Swiss hospitals are making inroads into the Arabic market AFP

A private Swiss hospital group has become the first of its kind to expand abroad, opening a branch in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

This content was published on July 23, 2007 - 08:29

The hospital of the Bern-based Sonnenhof group will open at the end of this month in the emirate of Ras Al-Khaimah, with further hospitals planned for Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Al-Ain.

Switzerland has an excellent reputation abroad for the quality of its medical facilities and care.

Now Sonnenhof is going in the other direction and, with its daughter company Sonnenhof Swiss Health, will operate in the 250,000-strong Emirate.

It was not however a Swiss idea. "We were asked by local investors to take over the management of the new hospital in Ras Al-Khaimah," Peter Kappert, chairman of the Sonnenhof board, told swissinfo.

The sum being invested is SFr40 million ($33.3 million), half of which comes from Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammad al-Qassimi, who has ruled the Emirate since 1948, and the other half from a local investment firm that built the hospital.

In addition to the management, the hospital director and a head of medicine will also be Swiss as well as some of the doctors, with others coming from the region.

The hospital in Ras Al-Khaimah will initially have 50 beds, with 50 more expected to be added. "The birth rate among the local population is very high and therefore almost half the capacity will be used as a women's hospital," said Kappert.

There is also a surgical department and an emergency ward.

Health problems

Kappert says the greatest health problems in the Emirates, as in other countries like China, come from a lifestyle marked by lack of exercise, poor nutrition and smoking. "Obesity can lead to heart disease and cancer," he said.

Kappert says he has yet to come across any mental problems or cases of addiction in Ras Al-Khaimah. However, Suker al-Ghazali, an Iraqi psychiatrist working in Switzerland, says they do exist.

"Rich people in the Emirates have drug and alcohol problems but they are kept secret," al-Ghazali told swissinfo. "They come to Switzerland for treatment but tell everyone at home that they are going on holiday, as addiction is seen as a disgrace."

Cultural differences

As a commercial venture, Sonnenhof is playing a pioneering role in the UAE, and has good chance of success, according to Bernhard Wegmüller, manager of the Swiss hospital association H+.

"The Arabian Peninsula has greatly developed but it has a lot of catching up to do regarding the provision of health," Wegmüller told swissinfo. "In addition to the rich sheiks, there is a distinctive middle class which is definitely an interesting market."

He says cultural differences make it easier to treat Arabic patients in their home country than in Swiss hospitals.

"For that reason Sonnenhof's involvement is an interesting model," he said.

swissinfo, Susanne Schanda

Key facts

The Sonnenhof group is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The Sonnenhof private clinic was founded in Bern in 1957 by three doctors: Arnold Kappert, Jean Kohler and André Nicolet.
In 1998 the Sonnenhof clinic merged with the Engeried private clinic to form the Sonnenhof group.
Arnold Kappert's son, Peter, has been chairman of the board since June 2007.

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Ras Al-Khaimah

Ras Al-Khaimah ("The top of the tent") is one of seven emirates making up the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The others are Abu Dhabi (the capital of the UAE), Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain.

Ras Al-Khaimah is in the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula, bordering Oman, and is ruled by Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammad al-Qassimi, the world's oldest reigning monarch.

It covers 1,700 km², has a population of around 250,000 and lives off tourism, trade and agriculture.

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