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Let’s step up efforts to boost medical tourism

By Gokul Prem Kumar | September 27th 2019
A scientist in the lab. [File, Standard]

Kenya should take advantage of existing assets in the medical sector to ease the suffering of Kenyan patients and attract other nationals seeking specialised treatment services abroad.

A recent report by the Netherlands Enterprise Agency noted that the private health sector in Kenya is one of the most developed and dynamic in sub-Saharan Africa.

The report found that Kenya holds leadership in the region for technology and education.

In 2017, Kenya was named among top six destinations where African nationals visit seeking high-end specialised medical services. The report, dubbed “Tourism for Transformative and Inclusive Growth” noted that medical tourism — cross-border travel for medical purposes, including for medical services and elective procedures — is an emerging market segment that has expanded in recent years in several African countries, notably Egypt, Kenya, Mauritius, Morocco, South Africa, and Tunisia.

Further, Kenya is strategically placed given its accessibility from various parts of the continent as well as the world. Some countries score on pricing, some score on quality but only those with a good balance of both will have a long term sustained impact.

Kenya is well connected within Africa and beyond by air, road and water providing good connectivity for patients.

According to data from the Health Ministry, approximately 10,000 Kenyans travel abroad annually in search of medical treatment, spending at least Sh10 billion. The Government should step up efforts to tap into medical tourism.

In March this year, Health Cabinet Secretary Sicily Kariuki opened a kidney and liver transplant centre at Mediheal Hospital and Fertility Centre in Eldoret. The CS commended the hospital for its outstanding leadership in provision of high-quality medical services in Kenya and East Africa.

Mediheal has invested heavily in access to sub-specialised treatment including 120 dialysis chairs, 20 operating theatres and 120 ICU beds among other quality medical equipment.

Kenya is fast emerging as a preferred healthcare destination for patients from East and Central Africa. However, we are still seeing patients being sent abroad for treatment that can be treated in the country, and at incredibly lower costs.

It is estimated that Africans spend about 3.8 billion USD annually seeking healthcare overseas, predominantly in countries like India, Thailand, and Dubai. Kenya alone spends about 10 million USD annually on outbound medical travel.

To ease this trend, there should be collaborations between Health Ministry and the Tourism Ministry to aggressively market the country as a medical destination.

It’s a double-edged advantage for Kenya as it can save the funds being siphoned off by curtailing outbound medical travel and also capture the market share by increasing inbound medical tourism from neighbouring countries in Africa.

People need to be made aware that Kenya offers almost 80 to 90 per cent of the medical and surgical procedures being carried out elsewhere globally and in coming years, there wouldn’t be a need for people to travel out of the country seeking treatment.

Most patients usually travel for elective surgeries of joint replacements, cardiac related issues, cancer management, neurosurgery, IVF, organ transplant, cosmetics, and dentistry.

This happens despite the fact that Kenya is in a commendable position to deliver good clinical outcomes in these areas.

There is no active renal transplant programme in the region, except Kenya, and we need to optimise this capability to strengthen our leadership role.

The day is not far when Kenya would do complex procedures like heart and lung transplants.

Today, we have the capability of running successful kidney and liver transplants. For instance, Mediheal is the first hospital to perform lap donor nephrectomy in East Africa for kidney transplant.

Kenya also has a robust medical insurance sector. This could work very well when the insurers partner with health providers to offer reasonable packages with affordable premiums.

We must be aggressive in marketing what the country has to offer in terms of medical value travels. We have come a long way, we need to build the brand and increase credibility among Kenyans as well as other nationals.

The biggest strategic advantage that Kenya has is its base in tourism as it attracts about five million travellers from both internationally and regionally. Most of these countries where the tourist travel either have inadequate facilities from regional perspective and expensive from western countries perspective for treatments like dental, cosmetics, joint replacements et cetera.

There is a need to adopt a pro-active and cohesive approach to work closely with Kenya Tourism Board in promoting the healthcare services by means of road shows and exhibitions while promoting Kenyan tourism.

The government should involve private hospitals to represent as a Kenya pavilion consortium at various healthcare forums and medical tourism promotion destinations.

While Africa is, most definitely, an exotic and inspirational gift to the world, we would like to gift the joy of good health to the people of Africa, so that they can contribute significantly to the world.

Mr Kumar is Mediheal’s Vice President-International Patient Service.

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