Tears rolled down the 40-year-old cheeks of David Wachira as he recalled his successful spinal surgery in India.
“My parents came to pick me at JKIA and could not believe their eyes when they saw me walking like I used to 10 years earlier,” says the businessman from Njoro, Nakuru County.
He spent Sh1.5million for the hip and spine surgery at the Manipal Hospital and reckons “if I was ever to undergo any operation, it would be in India without a doubt.”
The father of two spent two months in India and “though I move with a wheelchair, I am happy that I can sit,” he says outlining that beyond the cost of treatment, Sh90,000 was airfare and Sh84,000 for hotel and accommodation.
Daniel Kinyanjui, 72, went to India and says “battling prostate cancer had been very difficult for me and my family both financially and emotionally,” but he has fully recovered.
“The medical team was highly skilled,” he recalls. “We got the best medical care which made my experience in hospital and outside pleasantly memorable. I got my life back.”
Kenyans who have gone to India for medical treatment have almost similar stories irrespective of gender.
Take Esther Waithera from Nakuru, for instance. She went to India for a kidney transplant and recalls “the nursing teams at the hospital were like angels who have given me a new pain-free life.”
She spent about Sh5 million on medical expenses, accommodation, and travel, and “it is an experience I will never forget. Kidney transplant is not an end of life for me as I had thought.”
The three are among hundreds of Kenyan medical tourists to India, a favourite destination ahead of countries like South Africa, Israel, Japan, USA, and Singapore.
Most patients who travelled to India underwent a kidney transplant, open heart surgery, general surgery, bone marrow transplant, chemo-radiotherapy, or chemotherapy and according to the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Council (KMPDC), of the over 500 patients who flew out for medical treatment between 2018 and 2020, over 450 went to India.
Most cite affordable healthcare from different specialists as the major reason, but KMPDC CEO Daniel Yumbya dismissed the perception that the cost of treatment abroad is cheaper than in Kenya.
Yumbya says most Kenyans are treated in facilities the equivalent of Kenya’s Level Four hospitals and worse still “the doctors handling patients abroad fail our examinations here” besides patients are “placed in a hostel during treatment. To me, this sounds like a lucrative business”.
Yumbya says the council has been encouraging training of specialists and skills transfer to curb medical tourism.
But health economists concur that the cost of medical healthcare in India is cheaper than Kenya’s and for many reasons: high number of medical specialists, medical equipment and pharmaceutical companies besides India’s over 1.3 billion strong population, bring down the cost of treatment due to economies of scale.
In India, there is one doctor for every 1,400 people according to the Economic Survey of 2019-2020, a high doctor-patient ratio against the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendation of 1: 1,000. Kenya, on the other hand, has 50 million people but only 9, 826 licensed doctors of which 2,606 are specialists.
Shortage of specialists
Demand and supply dynamics dictates the cost of treatment, which in our case, goes up and the acute shortage of specialists in Kenya means patients are not able to get immediate medical attention, unlike in India.
Cost of healthcare in Kenya is regulated under the Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board Act, 2016 but referrals are allowed if there is evidence they’re the most cost effective options of seeking treatment without using public resources.
In India though, a patient pays a minimum of Sh144,000 for laminectomy without instrumentation and a maximum of Sh240,000 but the same can cost Sh800,000 in some Kenyan hospitals, says medical tourism expert Gokul Prem Kumar of the Mediheal Group.
Of the 120, 000 international patients seeking treatment in India annually, about 10, 000 are from Kenya and according to Seilah Anbu’s International issues on Health Economics and Management, “Indian specialists have performed over 500,000 major surgeries and over a million other surgical procedures including cardio-thoracic, neurological and cancer surgeries, with success rates at par with international standards,” and thus patients benefit from wide, practical experience.