Developments in medical tourism in Africa

 

While most African countries are seen as suppliers of medical tourists, several are looking at becoming regional hubs of inbound medical tourism.

Zambia, in south-central Africa, is the continent's biggest copper producer. The country has been peaceful and generally trouble-free, compared to most of the eight neighbours with which it shares a border. There are private hospitals in Zambia’s larger cities that cater to foreigners and also to affluent Zambians.

Health tourism will attract local and international tourists in areas such as Mambwe and Mfuwe, says local politician Emmanuel Mwamba, “Government is working on health sector reforms that will incorporate health tourism to attract more local and international tourists. In Mambwe and Mfuwe, which receive thousands of both domestic and international tourists in a year, this could boost domestic tourism. We need to add value by putting in place a sound infrastructure, creating unique products and quality service.”

In an effort to boost the budding tourism sector that brought in much needed foreign exchange in 2012, Rwanda is considering medical tourism, mainly in the region, as another option to increase foreign exchange earnings in a country with a $1,2 billion trade deficit. The country is striving to rebuild its economy, with coffee and tea production being among its main sources of foreign exchange. Nearly two thirds of the population lives below the poverty line.

Rica Rwigamba of the Rwanda Development Board says, "The government is courting investors to set up advanced medical facilities to make our country a regional tourism hub. Medical tourism is something that requires a different approach to attract health investment like Dr. Agarwal’s Eye Hospital. It is also about attracting people with quality medical services at affordable rates. Rwanda is in a good location in terms of climate, the security and quiet environment, which patients need when going through the process of healing."

Rwanda’s problem is that many patients with complications that local doctors cannot handle are referred for medical attention abroad, mostly to India or South Africa. This is especially for people suffering from heart defects and health complications like blood cancer, brain tumour and plastic surgery for deformities or acid attack victims.

The government accepts that to develop medical tourism it would need world-class medical facilities, and a pool of specialists, an expensive venture that the government to cannot afford. So it needs overseas investors to build hospitals.

The Ministry of Health admits that it does not know statistics on the number of people who fly in or out of the country for treatment or the amount of money the state loses in terms of foreign exchange – as individuals do not have to say why they are flying in or out of the country.

Recently, Dr. Agarwal’s Eye Hospital opened in Kigali, making it the first foreign specialist establishment, which is most likely to become a regional eye referral centre. This could mean that Rwanda will earn more foreign exchange from patients. The specialist hospital handles all complicated eye cases that were once referred abroad. This will help the country save its hard currency that would have been used abroad. Rwanda is a poor rural country with 90% of the population engaged in subsistence agriculture so is never going to be a targeted market for other countries, or become a major medical tourism destination.

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