Progress on two new medical facilities, located in Irbid and Amman, could add much-needed capacity to Jordan’s health sector as it copes with rising demand for healthcare services.
At the start of the year, the government began the pre-qualification process for the Princess Basma Educational Hospital project. The tender, which was originally floated by the Ministry of Public Works and Housing in November 2015, had received 13 separate bids from Jordanian and Saudi consortiums.
Construction of the 500-bed facility is set to cost around $70.5 million, with funding earmarked to come from the Saudi Fund for Development, Saudi Arabia’s $1.25 billion commitment to the $5 billion Gulf Cooperation Council development grant for Jordan.
Also this year, a new World Health Organization (WHO) medical facility was opened in Amman to serve as a regional center for health emergencies and polio eradication.
“Iraq, Syria, and Yemen are just three in a list of countries in the region requiring large-scale, ongoing humanitarian health assistance,” explained WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean Dr. Ala Alwan, at the facility’s opening ceremony in mid-January.
“As we scale-up our regional capacity to respond to emergencies, the emergency team based here in Amman will have a key role in ensuring that in all 22 countries of the region, [the] WHO is better prepared to respond to current and new crises.”
According to HM King Abdullah, around 25 percent of the country’s budget has been devoted to caring for refugees, including basic infrastructure and social services. As Jordan’s refugee population has continued to increase, health care capacity has struggled to keep pace. The ratio of hospital beds per 10,000 people, for example, fell from 19.3 in 2010 to 18.6 in 2014, according to the latest data available from the Ministry of Health, with just 628 beds added over the period.
However, this data excludes the mounting Syrian refugee population, suggesting that actual bed-to-patient ratios may be much lower. As of November 2015, the number of Syrians in the country had reached 1.4 million, equivalent to around 20 percent of the Kingdom’s population.
According to a capacity assessment conducted in part by the WHO, Jordan’s Ministry of Health incurred around $53 million in additional costs by 2013, including $20 million spent on vaccines, to cover the health care needs of Syrian refugees—a two-fold year-on-year increase.
A needs-assessment review from the same year, conducted in partnership with the UN Development Programme, found the number of Syrian refugee visits to the Ministry of Health’s primary care centers for outpatient treatment rose from 68 in January 2012 to nearly 16,000 in March 2013, with Syrian patients accounting for as much as 18 percent of all visits in some areas of the governorates of Irbid and Mafraq.
While projects like the Princess Basma Hospital in Irbid and the WHO facility in Amman could help boost capacity, the government is also considering steps to increase the number of service providers in the country.
In March 2015, for instance, the Ministry of Health announced it would allow Jordanian doctors to continue working for up to five years past the retirement age of 60 in response to staffing shortages.
The option of putting Syrian doctors to work also remains on the table. Other countries in the region have explored similar measures, with the Turkish government announcing in January that it would loosen work permit restrictions for Syrians. Refugees under temporary protection in Turkey, including doctors, are currently allowed to provide services to refugee communities in camps.
In Jordan, the focus is on streamlining the provision of work permits for medical professionals and removing bottlenecks. At present, Jordanian citizenship remains a de facto requirement for licensing, as it’s a precondition for acceptance to the Jordanian Medical Association.
Local stakeholders, for their part, are optimistic about the prospects of regulatory easing. “We have all these Syrian doctors who are qualified, and we could benefit from their expertise,” Naseem Samawi, executive director of the Italian Hospital in Amman, told media in December. “I think the government has the capacity to organize this.”
While the Kingdom will need to continue juggling the needs of refugees and its own citizens—as well as a burgeoning medical tourism segment—long-term prospects are more promising, with higher demand providing added impetus to expand capacity and increase the standard of care at NGO, public and private medical facilities.
Oliver Cornock, Regional Editor THE INSIDE EDGE