Kuwait's health infrastructure and workforce is relatively small, while major health problems have arisen over the past decades. The state is still the dominant force in health expenditure, but private-sector participation is the key to expanding the healthcare sector.
Population increases, due to an influx of expats and improvements in life expectancy, have put a strain on the healthcare sector, necessitating reinforcements from the private sector to fill in the gaps.
Kuwait is a known heavyweight when it comes to per capita income and oil production, but the country also lists high on less enviable rankings. According to the most recent data of the World Health Organization (WHO), published in 2015, 75.4% of adult Kuwaiti nationals are overweight. The prevalence of obesity, defined by a Body Mass Index (BMI) equal to or higher than 30, among Kuwaiti adults is 39.7%. These figures put Kuwait at the top of the world’s most overweight and obese nations, and the consequences are severe. An alarming one out of five adult Kuwaitis has diabetes, and other non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as heart disease, cancer, and respiratory conditions, have increased dramatically. Implications of this reality put a heavy burden on the country’s healthcare sector, a sector that is already confronted with changing demographics. Kuwait’s population has been growing at a fast pace, having doubled from 2.05 million at the dawn of the 21st century to 4.1 million as of 2016. A major factor in this growth has been the influx of expatriates, mainly from South Asian and other Arab countries. But higher life expectancy and a lower infant mortality rate have also contributed to a growing population. These positive developments reflect the improved quality of Kuwait’s healthcare sector, which is a great accomplishment. Yet, the country’s health infrastructure is struggling to keep pace with the higher medical requirements that stem from unhealthy lifestyles and a growing population. The amount of hospital beds in Kuwait per 1,000 people is 2.2, according to the latest available data on the subject, provided by the World Bank in 2012. This is significantly lower than the global average of three and developed countries’ average five beds for every 1,000 inhabitants. Kuwait is also lagging with regard to human capital in the health sector. The number of available physicians, nurses, and midwives relative to the country’s size is well behind developed markets as well. High costs of expanding healthcare infrastructure together with lower government finances ask for greater participation of the private sector in the healthcare sector, a realm in which the state has been the dominant force in recent decades. As of 2014, the share of the government in Kuwait’s total health expenditure was 85.9%, which is among the highest in the world and second in the GCC, only after Oman. And yet, at the same time, the share of health expenditure in the total government spending is modest. Kuwait’s per capita annual healthcare expenditure is among the lowest in the developed world, at USD1,386 in 2014, although it is relevant to stress that per capita healthcare spending is low across the GCC, and not only in Kuwait. The need for investments in Kuwait’s healthcare infrastructure and workforce is evident, and many new projects are indeed underway, of which the Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah Hospital is the most exciting one. Increased private sector participation is a key element of Kuwait’s vision for the future, and the healthcare sector is no exception. The near-monopoly of the government in healthcare expenditures may be expected to drop, and the announcement of new healthcare rates for expatriates will add to this. While healthcare is free for Kuwaiti nationals, foreigners living in Kuwait have paid the same prices for medical procedures since 1993, on top of their health insurance payments. In spite of the outcry over the price hike among expats, the government looks determined to hand over some of its vast share of the country’s total health expenditure to the private sector.