Nairobi is fast becoming one of Africa’s key medical tourism destinations thanks to the upgrading of health facilities to meet international standards.
Nearly 5,000 foreigners visit Kenya annually for medical treatment and other health-related reasons, a recent situational analysis across Kenya shows. “These patients come from countries like Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and some from as far as Zambia, Malawi and the Democratic Republic of Congo to seek medical services that include in vitro fertilisation (IVF), open heart surgery, cancer treatment, kidney transplant, neurological disorders and diagnostics services”, Stephen Masinde, Kenya director of medical tourism firm A&K Global Health says.
“Most of these patients lack facilities at home, they come because it is cheaper or because of shorter waiting times”, says Tom Simba from the Nairobi Hospital that experiences a growth of foreign clients.
Broken radiation equipment
“A tremendous increase can also be attributed to our Heart and Cancer Centre that serves as a regional referral centre, a leader in quality healthcare provision and a platform for scientific research since its inauguration in July 2011”, Eunice Mwangi from Aga Khan University Hospital says, that has seen an increase in patients from the region over the past decade as well. “And recently, our hospital helped 400 patients with free radiation treatment in Uganda when the country’s only radiation therapy equipment had broken down.”
Masinde adds that previously patients had to rely on their own research or recommendations to choose a hospital in Kenya. This was tricky for some, as they did not have a contact person before travelling for medical care. But now medical tourism firms in Kenya market the available medical services, cost and state of hospitals in the country to potential clients in neighbouring countries. “Once we get the patients, we then handle the logistics, bookings and medical billing issues,” Masinde says.
First water birth baby
The Aga Khan University Hospital offers very specialized care and has been the first hospital in Kenya that introduced for example video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS), the use of dissolvable stents which stay in place for several months before getting absorbed after the vessel has healed and the use of a diamond drill to unblock a major heart artery which was too hard to open with a balloon treatment alone. It’s also the first hospital in the region that offers the possibility to pregnant women to deliver in a ‘birthing pool’.
The hospital does face challenges with finding highly skilled personnel though. “As we were the first hospital in the region to achieve the Joint Commission International (JCI) accreditation, which is the highest international hospital accreditation, it is still difficult to recruit staff who are familiar with these standards”, Mwangi tells. “Therefore we invest a lot in the training of our personnel, including training of our doctors in fellowships abroad, but as a result this specialised, skilled and highly trained staff becomes a target in the international market and sometimes it becomes a challenge to retain them”, Mwangi states.
Stop the brain drain
“By promoting investments in good medical facilities and the introduction of specialised care, Kenya could grow its new tourism brand and raise earnings through health tourism, which has been successful in India already for a long time”, Vision 2030 Delivery Secretariat director-general Julius Muia said last year ahead of a three-day international conference on medical tourism.
A recent Economic Development in Africa Report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) even concluded that this growing demand for specialised medical care can stimulate job creation for highly skilled health professionals in the region and will hopefully stop the brain drain of medical specialists moving to the U.S. or Europe.
Photo credits: Aga Khan University Hospital