Rwanda aims to become a regional medical tourism hub

 

Rwanda wants to become a medical tourism destination to boost foreign earnings. But it has few world-class medical facilities, and those are provided by overseas investment.

Rwanda is revamping its creaking health sector in the hope of attracting African patients from across its borders to galvanize its tourism industry. The tourism sector is slowly growing and the government sees medical tourism as a niche product that could help expand it. In 2012, Rwanda hosted 1,075,829 visitors compared to 908,001 in 2011, which represents an increase of 22%.

“The government is courting investors to set up advanced medical facilities in the country; to help make our country a regional medical tourism hub,” says Rica Rwigamba of the Rwanda Development Board. She is optimistic that tapping into medical tourism would improve foreign currency earnings that are badly needed to bridge the country’s trade deficit, which currently stands at over $1.2 billion.

The Ministry of Health admits it does not know how many Rwandans go abroad for treatment and how much the government loses in foreign exchange as a result. It is not just the medical costs, but also the travel and hotel costs of the patient and any companions.

Rwigamba adds “Medical tourism requires a different approach to attract world class health investors. It is also about wooing people to provide quality medical services at affordable rates. Rwanda is in a good location in terms of climate, security and a quiet environment, which patients need when going through the process of healing.”

Dr Agarwal’s Eye Hospital recently opened its doors in Kigali, making it the first foreign-owned specialist establishment in the country, which is likely to become a regional eye referral centre. The Asian firm has so far invested $6 million and plans to invest more in the next few years. “We have spent time with the ministry of health and Rwanda Development Board to see how we can expand this sector,” explains Farooq Siddiqui of Dr Argarwal Eye Hospital.

The new specialist hospital handles many complicated eye cases that were once referred abroad. The aim of this hospital is to stop any referrals for eye treatment outside Rwanda.

Before Rwanda can promote medical tourism it needs better hospitals, better-trained medical personnel and specialist skills. Above all it needs foreign investors prepared to build and run those new hospitals. It also needs to build confidence in local patients that local healthcare is better than going abroad. There is a shortage of doctors, while waiting time for non-urgent treatment is often long. A substantial number of women leave the country just to give birth. The country has little medical training and no pharmaceutical industry; so it has to import high priced drugs that attract heavy tax duties. State-of-the-art medical equipment is expensive and requires trained staff to operate it, and there are few of either in the country.

For medical tourism to succeed it will need more than a few overseas investors with new hospitals. There needs to be synergy between government, healthcare and insurance providers, industry and academia create a decent local healthcare system before trying to sell the concept to visitors.

Rwanda is never going to attract huge numbers of medical tourists but there has to be an improvement in the local health infrastructure boosted by the public and private investments in specialised hospitals and state of the art medical equipment.

King Faisal Hospital, Rwanda’s leading state-owned healthcare provider, wants to become a regional referral hospital in East Africa and attract patients from Burundi, Congo, Uganda and Kenya. In 2012 the hospital received 3755 foreign patients from across the region and Congo sent the biggest number of 1850.

There is an increased flow of patients to Rwanda. Uganda and Kenya. While the elite may still prefer to travel to Europe for treatment, the rising importance of local culture means that more Africans prefer to seek treatment within Africa rather than go to Asia. Outsiders may dismiss inter-African medical tourism as little more than a fantasy- and although it may take 20 or 30 years to happen- the regional African market will eventually be important. Tourism was once dismissed as a fantasy, but most African countries now do rather well out of a fast expanding tourism market.

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