There is a large gap between Qatar’s healthcare demand and its capacity, according to Jad Bitar, health principal at US management consulting firm Booz & Company.

As the country gears up to host football’s Fifa World Cup 2022, its rapid population growth, estimated to increase from 1.8 million in 2012 to more than 3 million in 2020, exacerbates the situation.

“If we look at the standard of three and a half beds per capita, Qatar still has a long way to go. Beds are just a crude measure, so what is also important is the number of physicians and nurses. You need at least one physician per bed and three or four nurses per bed on the national level. There is a big gap there,” says Bitar.

The lack of capacity has led to the Supreme Council of Health sending many patients for treatment overseas, usually to destinations such as Germany, the US and the UK.

“Qatar will need to think about putting together partnerships with select countries in the region to hire and train [nurses and physicians],” says Bitar. “I haven’t heard that they are looking at increasing capacity specifically towards the World Cup, but it would be a waste if they did. The World Cup will lead to a spike of population for a very short time. In my opinion it would be better for Qatar to plan towards distributing the load in collaboration with other GCC countries.”

To boost its capacity, Qatar increased its healthcare budget last year from QR7.1bn ($1.95bn) over the financial year 2011/12 to QR9.1bn in 2012/13. It is expected to continue on that track to fund the 31 healthcare facilities planned to open between 2013 and 2021.

According to US real estate services organisation Colliers International, however, more investments and private-sector development will be needed to address the current challenges.

“Despite positive government measures being implemented to meet the demand for hospital bed capacity in the country, it remains challenging to deliver new hospitals or expand existing facilities to overcome the prevailing undersupply,” it states in a report published this year. “Moreover, it is Colliers’ understanding that most of the private hospitals are family owned and operated by doctors, with [a limitied number of] healthcare operators having substantial management experience locally, regionally and internationally.”

Educational programmes offered by Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar are encouraging a growing number of Qataris to join the healthcare sector, though expats will remain important. Providing training, treating employees well and incentivising expat staff will be important in retaining talent working in the healthcare sector, says Bitar.

In the short term, Qatar’s most pressing need is for specialist care. The ambitious hospital project Sidra Medical and Research Centre, focusing on children and women’s health, is set to address this by hiring about 2,000 nurses, 600 physicians and 800 allied health professionals. It is also initially planning to house 400 hospital beds.

“We recently announced our target opening date for the first quarter of 2015. I can also tell you that the building handover is on track and will be completed next year,” says Khalid al-Mohannadi, Sidra’s director of communications.

Through research projects, the centre also wants to tackle prevalent diseases in the region, in particular chronic lifestyle diseases such as respiratory problems, cancer and diabetes.

And while the hospital will welcome anyone who can pay for treatment, it is not yet clear whether it will be available to those who want to use their medical insurance to settle bills.

“Sidra is currently reviewing the insurance scheme as it’s being rolled out through 2014 and we look forward to participating in its early feasibility testing,” says Al-Mohannadi, referring to the government’s unrolling of a mandatory insurance scheme.

This year, insurance became compulsory for Qataris and will become mandatory for employees of the public sector and the private sector next year.

Qatar currently has 12 hospitals, with most operated by the public sector through Hamad Medical Corporation and Qatar Primary Healthcare Corporation.