Healthcare in the Sultanate of Oman
By Keith Boyfield,
*A Senior Fellow of the Euro-Gulf Information Centre.
OMAN has taken remarkable strides in the healthcare provision for its citizens over the last decades. Reflecting these gains, the country’s population has soared from just over half a million in 1960 (551,735 to be precise) to 5.2 million in 2022.(1-2) This is equivalent to an astonishing eightfold increase. Life expectancy of Omani citizens has also improved dramatically. In 1970, the average life expectancy was only 49.3 years but by 2016 it had reached 76 years—a truly impressive gain. Similarly, infant mortality, measured in terms of children under five, has plummeted by 72% between 1990 and 2013, while maternal mortality rates have fallen by 55% over the same time period.
In 1970, Oman had only 13 medically qualified doctors(3) and two functioning hospitals. This total has risen to nearly 70 hospitals in 2023 with over 6,400 beds.(4)In 2019, the total number of physicians working in Oman amounted of 6,419, while the number of nurses was 14,491. This translates into the equivalent of 21 doctors and 44 nurses caring for every 10,000 citizens. This is truly a dramatic improvement on the position 50 years earlier. Today, 95% of the country’s population live within ten kilometres of a medical centre.
In a survey of international health systems undertaken by the World Health Authority (WHO) in 2012, Oman was judged one of the ten best globally,(5) a remarkable achievement compared to healthcare provision in 1970. This is largely due to the fact that Oman allocates approximately 2.6% of its GDP to healthcare [measured in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP).(6) In 2021 GDP amounted to $147.9 billion (USD), with economic growth increasing by 2% but this has now accelerated to over 4%].(7)
Oman’s Healthcare System
Oman provides its citizens with a universal healthcare system that encompasses both primary and secondary levels of care. The Ministry of Health is the principal provider, who is responsible for formulating health policies and strategies aimed to improve medical standards. Recently, the Ministry has emphasised decentralisation as a model to deliver better healthcare services.
Given Oman’s demographic distribution and the previous lack of adequate medical facilities, the country was heavily reliant on overseas doctors and nurses in its hospitals and other medical centres. This is no longer the case. The Ministry of Health has been actively engaged in developing its own, domestic, educational facilities for Omani health professionals. A notable aspect of this drive has been the move to recruit women into the medical field. The increasing presence of women in management positions across Omani society is highlighted by the IMF in its latest country report, as illustrated in the graph below.
Estimated Share of Women in Managerial Postions
Source: ILO and IMF staff calculations
More than the 80% of total health expenditure is funded by the Ministry of Health. Looking ahead, Oman has exciting plans to create several new major healthcare facilities, including the $1.5 billion (USD) Sultan Qaboos Medical City (SQMC) in Muscat, which will encompass a total of five new hospitals along with other medical facilities. Oman is also pushing ahead with an ambitious $1 billion (USD) integrated medical tourism project in Salalah, named the International Medical City (IMC). This centre will feature a 530-bed tertiary specialty care hospital, a research and development (R&D) complex and organ transplant centre.(8)
Oman has clearly recognised the potential in offering advanced medical healthcare to patients in the Middle East and beyond. This strategy forms an integral part of the country’s Health Vision 2050—a long-term strategy, announced in 2014, that focuses on providing an equitable and responsive healthcare system to support a healthy population. The former Minister for Health, Dr Ahmed bin Mohammed bin Obaid Al Saidi, who served from 2010 until 2022, prioritised quality as his main goal in terms of healthcare provision.(9)
Over the past decade, Oman has focused on adopting a range of hi-tech solutions to boost efficiency in the healthcare sector, curb costs, and reduce waiting times. An example of this approach is the digitisation of the country’s medical records, which enables state-run hospitals and healthcare facilities to be electronically interconnected with a central database; a reflection of the drive towards adopting the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT).
Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic
Oman, like much of the world, was seriously impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, a strategy involving lockdowns and an ambitious vaccination programme successfully mitigated its overall effects. By 21 August 2021, the total number of cases registered in the country was recorded at 300,914, of which 289,450 had recovered with a relatively modest 4,020 who had died from this disease.(10) Significantly, the first people to contract Covid-19 were those in the expatriate community, but over time, the pandemic spread among the entire population. Yet, as the IMF observe, ‘strong policy actions helped mitigate the fallout from the Covid pandemic, and the economic recovery is (now) gaining traction, supported by revival in the hydrocarbon sector and the relaxation of social restrictions.’(11) By May 2022, nearly everyone above the age of 12 years had been partially vaccinated and around 90% were fully vaccinated.(12)
The two graphs below show the recurring waves of the disease and the remarkably high level of vaccinations among the country’s population.
There are, inevitably, future hurdles that require addressing. Medical care and an ever-widening array of drugs places funding pressures on the Sultanate’s healthcare system. This has sparked a discussion about introducing some nominal charges for visits to general practitioners while maintaining a commitment to universal access.
As is the case in other Gulf Cooperation Council countries, the increasing incidence of diet-related diseases is a major concern in Oman. Diabetes, in particular, is one of the most worrying conditions. In 2009, the type 2 diabetes rate among Omanis was 9%, but today that percentage has risen to an alarming 29%.(13) In the light of this rapid rise, the health authorities are working to promote lifestyle changes, notably in reducing sugar consumption, in order to arrest soaring levels of long-term incapacity linked to blood sugar conditions. This issue exemplifies a renewed commitment to preventative care, emphasising information and education. Oman’s Supreme Council for Planning launched a national campaign to promote physical activity employing the slogan ‘Health Begins with a Step'.
In many ways, Oman is a reflection of evolving healthcare practices among the Gulf states. Significant improvements have been achieved in recent decades, providing greater access to primary and secondary care. Oman has spearheaded a move into offering high class medical tourism facilities and it is drawing on the latest innovations in digitisation and modern healthcare techniques. At the same time, it is proactively addressing the health challenges of our modern age, particularly focusing on lifestyle choices and diet. The relative success it achieves in dealing with these fresh challenges will offer valuable lessons for medical professionals worldwide.
(2) Source: 2023 Index of Economic Freedom, Heritage Foundation, Washington DC.
(3) Source: Healthcare in Oman: a Success Story, https://borgenproject.org/healthcare-in-oman-a-success-story/
(5) Source: https://www.emro.who.int/omn/programmes/health-system-development.html
(6) Source: Oman’s healthcare system increasingly ready to meet the population’s needs, Oxford Business Group, 2017, https://oxfordbusinessgroup.com/reports/oman/2017-report/economy/on-the-rise-a-growing-population-finds-a-health-care-system-ready-to-meet-its-needs
(7) Source: IMF country report no 22/343 on Oman, November 2022
(9) Source: Oman’s healthcare system increasingly ready to meet the population’s needs, Oxford Business Group, 2017, https://oxfordbusinessgroup.com/reports/oman/2017-report/economy/on-the-rise-a-growing-population-finds-a-health-care-system-ready-to-meet-its-needs
(10) Source: "Oman COVID - Coronavirus Statistics - Worldometer"
(11) Source: IMF, 2023 Country Report
(12) Source: IMF, Country Report no 22/343 on Oman, November 2022.