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Patients seek treatment abroad as healthcare system ails

By | Mar 19th 2011 | 3 min read
By | March 19th 2011

By Kenfrey Kiberenge

When former Health Minister Charity Ngilu was admitted at Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) in September 2005, it was hailed as a vote of confidence to local public hospitals.

Ngilu caught media attention, as she was the first senior politician to be treated at a Kenyan public hospital. The minister, now heading the Water docket, left the hospital satisfied with services at the arguably largest referral hospital in East and Central Africa.

She challenged Cabinet colleagues and fellow MPs to seek medical services in public hospitals, saying public health institutions had adequate facilities and qualified medical personnel.

But that marked the first and last time a senior politician was treated at a public institution.

Since then, Ngilu, Prime Minister Raila Odinga and his wife Ida, former president Daniel arap and Head of Civil Service Francis Muthaura, among others, have been treated at the privately-owned, high-end Nairobi Hospital. And when push came to shove, the PM, Ngilu and Muthaura had to fly out of the country for specialised treatment.

Cancer treatment

More recently, Medical Services Minister Anyang’ Nyong’o was in the US for one month where he underwent prostate cancer treatment. This has been deemed as an indictment of the country’s health system.

Innumerable other Kenyans have flown abroad for specialised treatment in what is now being referred to as medical tourism, with most heading to India and South Africa.

Public Services Minister Dalmas Otieno was the first to slam the Kenyan health sector after Nyong’o returned, wondering why, nearly half a decade after independence, Kenyans had to go abroad for treatment.

Kenya as a source of patients was highlighted on Thursday and Friday this week, when India held what was dubbed as Indian Medical Tourism Destination exhibition at the KICC.

According to Nyong’o, a combination of many factors has led to the recent increase in popularity of medical tourism.

"The real attraction to medical tourism is saving money on what normally are very costly procedures," argues the minister, adding: "The cost of surgery in India, kidney transplants, cancer treatments, among others, can be as low as just a tenth of what is in Kenya."

Added to this is the fact that the period one waits before being treated is shorter abroad than locally.

At KNH, cancer and kidney transplant patients have complained that they have to wait for more than six months to get treatment, a claim reinforced by Nyong’o.

"At Kenyatta (National Hospital), a cancer patient can wait between six months and a year to get treatment," says the minister, who is in-charge of half of the country’s health sector. Mr Luke Kodambo, the chairman of the National Nurses Association of Kenya argues that Kenyans are taking millions of shillings abroad in the medical tourism, saying that the buck stops with the Government.

"The Government is not in control of the health sector," charged Kodambo. He points out that the situation is bound to get worse, as budgetary allocations to the ministry continue shrinking.

"In the last budget, the Health ministry got just six per cent (from seven per cent the previous financial year), a drop in ocean compared to the 15 per cent recommended during the Abuja Declaration of 2001," said Kodambo.

Similar sentiments were echoed by Nyong’o, who said the ministry got only Sh28.7 billion during the 2010/2011 financial year against Sh75 billion required to bring hospitals up to acceptable standards.

The future looks bleak for the country since the country’s health sector is grappling with shortage of manpower, overstretched infrastructure and corruption.

Today there are just 4,500 physicians in the country with a net emigration of 51 per cent for doctors who leave the country to work overseas. Nyong’o decried that 40 million Kenyans’ health is being taken care of by only 17,000 nurses and 1,700 doctors who include 331 specialists.

"The presence of so few health personnel in Kenya can make it difficult for the Government to carry out adequate disease surveillance, maintain accurate statistics regarding disease outbreaks and report relevant finding to neighbouring countries and international organisations," he said.

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