Realistic hopes of Kenya becoming a medical tourism destination?


The Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi is hopeful of becoming a medical tourism destination, despite price increases in Kenya’s top hospitals of up to 40% in 4 months, recent publicity surrounding the kidnapping of a tourist by Somali “pirates” and general concerns about the safety and security of visitors.

Aga Khan University Hospital recently completed its first surgery enabled via video links. The hospital argues that video conference surgery offers limitless opportunities for procedures that Kenyans have been shopping for abroad, largely because of the high costs of the treatment locally and, in some cases, because of the long waiting times at public hospitals with the capacity to perform the operations.

Besides the direct benefits to patients, it offers local doctors an opportunity to link with more experienced and skilled surgeons in other countries dictating instructions to their local counterparts. These could help form the next knowledge pool for training future doctors, hopefully helping reduce the personnel deficit that has left only 7000 doctors serving in Kenya compared to a demand of 24,000.

The procedure also promises better linkages between doctors in hospitals in remote areas and specialists in leading private and referral hospitals that would help perform delicate procedures without patients having to be transferred. Infrastructure challenges limit the potential to which telemedicine can be practised in Kenya outside the main urban centres. The technology requires a dependable bandwidth in a sector where precision is, literally a matter of life and death; so this needs new fibre optic cables to major centres in Kenya. Electricity is not installed in remote outposts. The hospital hopes that once these problems are dealt with, Kenya will be on the way to becoming a medical tourism destination for other African countries.

Exactly how many Kenyans travel overseas is unknown, but some doctors say that s many as 50,000 people will go to India this year because of the poor state of local healthcare, compared to 25,000 last year. Kenyans go to Asia and Europe for treatment relating to neurological disorders, brain surgery, open-heart surgery and orthopedic ailments.

Kenya requires 24,000 doctors but only has 7,000, with 3,000 of them working in public hospitals and 4,000 in private ones. 1,000 go abroad each year. The capacity gap to meet the demand for services has seen many seek treatment abroad, their choice dictated by waiting lists, some of which stretch several months before surgery can be performed. Peter Nduati of local insurer Resolution Health East Africa, says, “We have for years referred our patients to other countries for critical operations because the doctors there have been practising the procedures for much longer than our own.” It is now common for families to organise fundraisers for relatives to collect money to send their patients abroad.

Kenya’s top hospitals have increased their charges by up to 40 % in the past four months, both caused by and helping increase inflation. Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH), Gertrude’s Children Hospital, Mater Hospital and Karen Hospital have all increased their charges due to the rising cost of food, fuel, foreign exchange costs, and labour plus runaway inflation. Some locals argue that the increased costs are self-inflicted and linked to the aggressive expansion plans major hospitals are pursuing as they expand to major towns and within city suburbs.

Although Southern Kenya is relatively safe, Northern Kenya is notorious for problems. Britain’s Foreign Office advises, “There is a high threat from terrorism in Kenya. We advise against all but essential travel to within 30 km of the Somali border or low-income areas of Nairobi. Any travel to remote areas or border regions could put you at risk of being the target of attacks or kidnappings - six foreigners have been kidnapped in recent years.”



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