WAKO: Medical tourism is a structured problem


The point might have been lost on you if you have not had close encounters of the medical type, but the need remains pressing and urgent.

As doctors spent the last few weeks breaking down the disputed Collective Bargaining Agreement they signed in 2013, their key rallying call, beyond better remuneration, has been better working conditions and well equipped hospitals.

In the course of their industrial dispute with the government you might have come across their cleverly illustrated social media campaign that demonstrates what access to cheaper healthcare, quality drugs, health research and modern medical technology would mean to you.

The point might have been lost on you if you have not had close encounters of the medical type, but the need remains pressing and urgent.

Take a look at long-term illnesses such as chronic kidney failure, for instance. Patients need dialysis at least twice a week, which can cost up to Sh10,000.

And such treatment is different from cancer because there is no remission, or break from treatment. Once you are on dialysis, that becomes your routine until you get a transplant or, if unlucky,  succumb to the disease.

Patients spend, on average, Sh500,000 annually just to manage this condition, and very few Kenyans can afford that. Yet some people have been on dialysis for up to 20 years!

Every session takes up to four hours, meaning it could prove difficult to remain employed when you are on dialysis because you have to spend eight to 12 hours a week at the hospital. That, to an impatient employer, is a whole working day “lost” at the hospital.

I had never looked at Kenya’s health care in these terms until fate knocked on my door about two years ago, when my brother was diagnosed with kidney failure. All of a sudden I realised good, quality medical care mattered. It was a matter of life and death, something of immeasurable value.

I found myself looking at insurance policies. What are the benefits of the National Health Insurance Fund, I asked myself?

Every now and then you see people seeking assistance through harambees or M-Changa, or posting long tear-jerkers on Facebook. A lump forms in your throat as you read through, but you move on to the wedding photos and posts by your friends on desert safari in Dubai. 

The stories of cancer patients spending the nights on the waiting-bay benches of the cancer clinic at Kenyatta National Hospital so as to get the chance to receive chemotherapy do not catch your attention as much as those of politicians on the campaign trail, promising heaven and, yeah, quality health care.

Kenya’s medical care, really, is a mess; facilities lack standard equipment and easily curable diseases have become hard to manage, counties have shells for clinics, doctors lack equipment, nurses are demotivated, wards are cramped and crumbling, and specialists are running their lucrative clinics across the fence.

Is it, then, rocket science to see why Kenyans are some of the most noticeable medical tourists on the streets of India?

A report by the International Medical Travel Journal in 2015 showed that Kenyans spend $120 million annually abroad in search of quality health care, most of it in India.

For us, we chose to travel there for two reasons: it was affordable, and it offered us the best opportunity for world-class medicine. It cost us about the same as it would have had we carried out the procedure at a private facility in Nairobi, only with better technological support.

Was it worth it for us? I’d say yes. Besides the numerous forms we had to fill before flying out, the board approvals, statements that had to be notarised by lawyers, and approvals from various ministries, it was worth every penny.

Little wonder, then, that this medical pilgrimage by Kenyans has spawned a thriving micro-economy in Delhi, from taxis to guest houses and guide services by Indians boasting a sputtering of Kiswahili.

Considering that many Kenyans stay in India for at least a month, housing is booming business here.

People go to India in search of life, a second chance to live. Some are fortunate to have NHIF pay their costs, but the majority of us have to sell our pieces of land, cars, or even beg for funds from our friends and relatives.

And many more will keep making the pilgrimage to New Delhi, unless we put our house in order.

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