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Home / Health & Science

The hidden costs of going for treatment overseas

Health & ScienceBy Daniel Yumbya | Fri,Apr 09 2021 08:10:35 UTC | 3 min read

 Medical tourism is a multi-billion-shilling industry.

One of my favourite philosophers, Mahatma Gandhi, once said: “It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver”.

His sentiments ring true to this day and might explain why patients are always seeking better health services, and if they can afford, are willing to spend millions by traveling abroad if promised favorable outcomes when their health is on the line.

This could be one of the reasons medical tourism is a multi-billion-shilling industry. The Ministry of Health estimates that Kenyans spend $15 million on medical expenses abroad.

In any given year, hundreds of Kenyans troop to hospitals abroad in search of treatment. Between January and December 2019, more than 400 patients were cleared by the Health ministry and Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Council (KMPDC) to travel abroad for treatment. The numbers recorded in 2020 are slightly lower due to the lockdown imposed to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.

The few patients who seek clearance from KMPDC are those who need NHIF to help with their medical bills. Hundreds of other people, especially those with private insurance, go directly without authorisation from the council.

Hospital fees

According to our data, the most common referrals are those to do with oncology, heart disease, and organ transplants. Although some, if not all of these services, are available in health facilities in Kenya, a number of patients genuinely travel for services unavailable in the country.

While going abroad for treatment is no guarantee for better healthcare, it has been sold as the ultimate option for medical care. This is not always true.

Whereas the treatment expenses overseas in some cases may appear pocket friendlier than the costs in Kenyan hospitals, many patients travel oblivious of a myriad added costs resulting from travel. Besides the hospital fees, patients pay for accommodation, air ticket, and food. In most cases, family members accompany the patients, adding to the costs.

Such costs make treatment abroad extremely expensive and many patients, unable to meet these expenses, end up detained in foreign hospitals for unpaid medical bills. This only adds more suffering to families already strained by medical bills and anxiety over the health of their members.

A patient also needs to plan for any needed aftercare upon returning home. One must talk to their doctor to plan for medication and other post-operative needs that may arise from treatment to ensure the treatment received is indeed working well. It would be quite difficult for a practitioner abroad to physically follow up on a patient who sought treatment from them.

For reasons elucidated above and several others, the KMPDC in 2017 developed rules for referral of patients abroad. Under these rules, a medical or dental practitioner may refer a patient for medical or dental management abroad where; there is evidence of inadequate expertise or medical facilities to handle the condition locally; when referral is the most cost-effective option available for the patient; and when the patient opts to pay for medical intervention abroad.

The rules determine the procedure for referrals and eliminate sporadic or unwarranted referrals that fleece Kenyans. This means that Kenyans who want to seek treatment abroad must inform the Health ministry and KMPDC about their intent.

This is important because it will help reduce unnecessary referrals when the services can be received in the country at a lower cost, and, in the unfortunate event a patient dies while receiving treatment abroad, the Kenyan Embassy at the country which one is seeking treatment is in the know, making it easier to help in the transfer of the body.

Multi-agency affair

In recognition of fissures in the current regulations, the National Assembly is seeking to amend the Health Act by introducing a new section in the law that will establish policy guidelines in the regulation of overseas referrals.

Sponsored by Kesses MP Swarup Mishra, the amendments make the referral of patients abroad a multi-agency affair. KMPDC, NHIF, Association of Private Health Institutions, Kenyan embassies, and consulates will play a part in vetting the referrals.

The rules, as proposed, stand to benefit the people. KMPDC is committed to ensure that Kenyans get quality healthcare in the country and in the event that they are referred abroad, their safety and healthcare concerns are well taken care of. Patients must, however, commit to play their part and seek advice from the Ministry of Health and the KMPDC before travel.

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