Kenya moots plan to be region's premier medical tourism hub

Doctors at the Mediheal hospital performed a Coronary Artery bypass graft surgery on September 27, 2022. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Acquiring international accreditation is one of the ways Kenyan healthcare providers can position the country as a prime destination for medical tourism.

A concept note from the Ministry of Health on making Kenya a preferred destination for medical tourism in Africa also recommends that medical specialists should seek international certification for this to be possible.

The document calls for partnerships between medical insurers and health providers to offer reasonable packages with affordable premiums.

"India is the leading medical destination globally due to their lower medical cost packages," reads the ministry document.

The number of Kenyans who travel abroad for treatment, according to government data, stands at 10,000 annually.

These Kenyans end up spending Sh10 billion in the countries of destination.

Seeking treatment

According to the Tourism Sector Performance Report for January-August 2022 by the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, 7,833 people came to the country for the sole purpose of seeking treatment.

Kenya attracts medical tourists from Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria - which the Health Ministry says is an opportunity that should be accelerated.

"Several hospitals in Kenya are already marketing medical tourism, namely Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH), Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital (MTRH), Kenyatta University Referral, Research and Teaching Hospital, Nairobi Hospital, Karen and Mediheal hospitals," it says.

MTRH, for example, receives about 250 patients annually from neighbouring countries seeking treatment at the facility, mostly from Uganda, South Sudan and Tanzania, hence the need to improve services.

This improvement, however, comes at a cost.

In a recent interview with The Standard, Aga Khan University Hospital Chief Executive Rashid Khalani said making a health institution attractive particularly to the international market requires improving the quality of service and care.

This means getting the right talent and meeting the necessary international accreditation.

The hospital has a Joint Commission Accreditation as a centre of excellence for the management of stroke and in 2020 it was second in Africa as a centre for excellence for heart attacks.

"All these standards and accreditation are not cheap," the CEO said. "It cost us millions every year and no public institution or regulator has asked us to do. "But it is the right thing to do because you are benchmarking yourself against the best in the world."

He said it has become necessary as well for the hospital to tackle brain drain since many Kenyan doctors choose to work abroad because of the better infrastructure and perks.

"We are going out quite regularly to recruit Kenyans who are working outside. For example, the cardiothoracic surgeon in our hospital is a Kenyan, trained in Germany, and it was not easy," Mr Khalani said.

"Because if you want to recruit a Kenyan working in Europe, what will you tell them?"

If this has to happen, then the right infrastructure and quality environment have to be provided since they are trained and have been working with the same abroad.

Apart from Aga Khan University Hospital, the other private facilities that fall into the level six status that categorises national referral facilities are Nairobi West Hospital, Nairobi Hospital and Karen Hospital.

Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital, Kenyatta National Hospital, Kenyatta University Teaching Research and Referral Hospital, National Spinal Injury Hospital (specialised for spinal injuries), and Mathari Teaching and Referral Hospital (specialised for mental illnesses) are in the same category.

The Ministry of Health concept note cites unreferenced research conducted recently that said the private health sector in Kenya is one of the most developed in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The research also named Kenya among the top six destinations where Africans visit seeking high-end specialised medical services, hence the need to leverage public-private partnerships.

Recently, Nairobi West Hospital announced it has started bone marrow transplant services in a bid to reduce the number of Kenyans travelling abroad for treatment.

A bone marrow transplant is done to treat cancers such as leukemia and myeloma.

"Many of our patients have been travelling out of the country. The biggest destination is India, others being Egypt, South Africa and the United States," said the hospital's chief medical director, Andrew Gachii.

The concept note from the ministry records that out of the 1,641 patients referred abroad from Kenyan hospitals, about 36 per cent had cancer followed by cardiovascular diseases at 19 per cent and musculoskeletal conditions at 13 per cent.

"Cancer remained the highest cause of referral abroad from 2016 up to 2020," the document says.

About 97 per cent of these referrals were to India, according to the ministry.

It was no surprise then when Prof Gachii noted that the commencement of bone marrow transplants at Nairobi West Hospital has been made possible in partnership with experts from India.

He said the cost of the procedure will be on a case basis but will roughly cost between Sh3 million and Sh4.2 million.

He noted that the same procedure costs Sh8 million in South Africa and more than Sh10 million in European countries.

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