By Fredrick Obura
The quest for low cost specialised treatment and long waiting lists in health institutions has culminated in a rising number of patients seeking alternative health care abroad.
According to medical experts, every year over 10,000 Kenyans travel abroad in search of specialised treatment in what is referred to as medical tourism.
"India is a popular destination that admits about 80 per cent of Kenyan patients for cases like cancer, dental, hip replacement, and heart bypass among other illness," says Karen Hospital’s Chief Executive Officer Betty Gikonyo.
"The hospitals rake in between Sh100 million and Sh500 million annually from specialised treatments," says Kenyatta National Hospital Chief Executive Officer Jotham Micheni.
"The numbers could grow annually if proper documentation is made, and this has denied the country a share of $20 billion, an annual global income in medical tourism," says Dr Gikonyo.
Kenya is capable tapping into the billion-dollar sector if it promotes public-private sector partnership through legislation, and reduces bureaucracy in the health sector.
"We stand a better position to be a popular destination because of existing tourism sites and our position as a business hub in the Sub-Saharan region," she says,
In Africa, South Africa is a leader in this category of tourism, with Kenya steadily catching up due to development of new medical facilities.
Already famous for its tourism packages, what is lacking in Kenya now is an elaborate marketing strategy to tap into medical tourism potential.
Kenyatta National Hospital, the country’s largest referral institution, receives patients from destinations like Namibia, but it intends to broaden its reach to Asia, Europe and parts of the US.
"We are looking at generating about Sh40 billion in the next five years from medical tourism if we successfully implement ongoing reforms to meet internationally acceptable specialised health care, training and research, institutional and financial capacity," he said.
Other hospitals like Nairobi, Mater, Aga Khan and Karen also have some of the best facilities in the region for medical tourists.
Meditour Africa Regional Director Arthur Onudi, says the country could use its advantage as a business hub and its popular tourist’s attraction sites to target patients from the East and Central Africa and later eye the global segment.
He, however, says hospitals have to re-invent and diversify business to take advantage of emerging opportunities .
"The Government has to provide an enabling environment through political stability, improving infrastructure and offering incentives to health institutions," he says.
It could be a tall order to pitch for patients seeking medication in heart or brain treatment from developed nations, but if the country invested in plastic surgery specialists, it can reap from wealthy tourists mindful of their looks.
Many countries where medical tourism has become popular have made significant changes to ensure patients are happy and healthy.
And they also have qualified doctors in various fields, who have been trained in world-recognised institutions.
Medical tourism in the Philippines continues to grow, with the number of overseas patients and clients rising from 60,000 in 2007 to about 100,000 in 2008 and gross revenues estimated to be at $350 million, since the programme was launched in 2006.
In light of this booming phenomenon, the Department of Tourism expects the Philippines to bag about $3billion for the global medical tourism industry by 2015, with 200,000 foreign patients arriving annually.
Karen Hospital — a popular destination for patients from Sub-Saharan region and also gaining popularity in Western countries — is working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to sensitise foreign patients on not only game parks and other attractions that Kenya has to offer but also world class hospitals.
Gikonyo says the institution has packaged its services in such a way that it gives an estimate of how much a procedure would cost.
"We can increase our global market share by improving communication facilities and boost the country’s security."
She says, just like tea, coffee and beaches, ministries and authorities concerned should now consider organising exhibitions and setting up a body to market the country’s health sector in Sub-Saharan and the rest of the world.