BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s Ministry of Health is turning to private business to help shoulder the cost of upgrading equipment and services.
Among them is Rafee al-Rawi, the scion of an old Sunni family, who promises to revolutionize cancer treatment in Iraq. Rawi is a pathologist by training and now lives in Dubai. He owns a medical devices supplier, an insurance company, a cardiovascular treatment center in Baghdad and one of the few private pharmaceutical companies in Iraq, making him the country’s closest thing to a healthcare mogul.
For his latest venture, Rawi and his business partners have put $50 million into the Andalus Hospital and Specialized Cancer Treatment Center, a 140,000 square-foot hospital on the eastern side of Baghdad. The hospital began accepting its first patients in the summer of 2018 and is slated to fully open in April 2020. Rawi estimates he and his business partners will invest another $100 million in the hospital. The project is part of a joint venture with Healthcare Global Enterprises, the largest provider of cancer care in India.
Rawi says the hospital has all “the latest models known to medicine,” including a mammography machine, PET and CT scanners to detect cancers and an MRI machine, the type of expensive medical equipment in severely short supply across Iraq. The center’s crowning achievement is its cyclotron, an 8,300-tonne particle accelerator housed within steep slabs of white concrete. The cyclotron will produce a radioactive substance called fluorodeoxyglucose, or FDG, used to identify cancer cells during medical imaging. FDG is very hard to import due to its very short half-life.
Rawi’s cancer hospital receives government support. High-ranking health ministry officials often visit the site and Rawi is on the board of directors of Iraq’s National Investment Commission, which grants business licenses and incentives to investors including waiving restrictions on foreign hiring, 15-year tax breaks and tax-free imports of medical equipment, all of which Rawi’s project has benefited from.
Sami al-Araji, chairman of the National Investment Commission, told Reuters that people like Rawi are central to reforming healthcare. The health ministry also hopes centers like Rawi’s will save the government money it currently spends on a medical evacuation program to send certain patients abroad for diagnoses and treatments that are unavailable locally. Since 2013, Reuters found, the government has sent more than 14,500 patients abroad for cardiac, bone marrow and ophthalmology treatments.
Rawi says he has a plan to tackle cancer drug shortages and high prices. His Modern Company for Drug Industries (MDI) has signed a deal with London-listed Jordanian generic maker Hikma to help him become Iraq’s first local manufacturer of cancer drugs.
“If successful we will cover drugs for 70-80% of cancers affecting Iraq. Within that 70-80%, we will be able to cover 100% of need. Iraq is spending $80-84 million now, we can reduce it to $30-34 million,” he told Reuters.
For Hikma, it is part of a wider Iraq strategy, its Executive Vice Chairman and President of MENA Mazen Darwazah said. The company is working with several producers to release local versions of their products on the Iraqi market.
reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; edited by Janet McBride and Elyse Tanouye