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Why Kenyans travel to India for complex surgeries

By Jacqueline Mahugu | June 9th 2018
Dr Agnivesh Tikoo, a spinal surgeon at the Apollo Navi Mumbai demonstrating how the robot works.

Emmanuel Gitau’s 16 years battle with kidney failure complications has been a journey of extraordinary grace and courage.

He has undergone three kidney transplants in India, which have all failed. His body started deforming as a result of the kidney failure.

The diagnosis of the 35-year-old’s condition did not come easy. At first he suffered pain in his body with most doctors in Kenya pointing to a problem with his bones. Doctors at various local hospitals prescribed pain killers. That meant spending a lot of money on ineffective treatments, as his condition deteriorated.

Opting to go to India should ordinarily be expensive considering the airfare, accommodation and treatment, but ironically, patients have found this far cheaper than seeking treatment in Kenya.


“The alarming thing was that I was always in great pain and I used to take pain killers frequently and daily, but what was causing it was never addressed. I chose to go to India because I knew that there they brainstorm. Here, I had been to doctors, yet had never been referred to an orthopedic yet the issue was my bones,” he says.

In India, he underwent a number of tests, and doctors told him his parathyroid hormones were too hyper. “That meant that instead of my body getting calcium from the blood, it was sipping calcium from my bones. Slowly I got a hunchback, I was in severe pain and started using crutches.”

After the diagnosis and treatment he was up and about without having to rely on painkillers.

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Gitau would not have a hunchback today and deformed bones if the problem had been addressed early. Medication is also far cheaper in India. “I was taking 16 tablets a day, at some point as many as 22. For example, one of the drugs I was taking was Pantocid. In Kenya they cost Sh60 to Sh70 a tablet and in India they are about Sh30 or 40.”

He has spent millions of shillings on treatment which would have been even more astronomical if his doctor in Kenya had not cut the consultation fees for the dialysis sessions he undergoes twice a week.


Gitau is among more than 10,000 Kenyans seeking treatment in India annually according to statistics from the National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF). Besides the low cost most Kenyans admire the speed with which diagnosis and treatment is done in India.

“When you go there they do not give you time to rest. They start immediately. I was to be there for a month, yet within ten days they had concluded everything. That is how it ends up being cheaper, because in Kenya you go to the hospital and they keep telling you to go back over and over without a conclusive diagnosis, but in India once they receive your case they brainstorm, and you go through all the tests as fast as possible and they hit the nail on the head with what ails you and you can begin healing. In Kenya I had never been to an orthopaedic, but when I got there I saw a nephrologist, an orthopaedic and a surgeon, did a lot of scans, MRIs, ultrasounds and xrays and a solution was found,” he says.

“We received two wrong diagnoses in Kenya for two years,” says Mary Kagure, who took her sister for treatment in India. “We ended up spending over Sh1 million in those two years with no improvement, and yet it cost us Sh500,000 here when we received an accurate diagnosis and my sister is now recovering.”

Even when one receives an accurate diagnosis, the queue for chemotherapy for instance at Kenyatta National Hospital is two years, and going to a private hospital can be upto five times more expensive, which has resulted in a lot of people opting to seek treatment in India.

Many patients hope they can get a referral to India, as NHIF also covers costs outside the country, where treatment is better.

“Once it has been determined that the treatment is not available here, we cover upto Sh500,000 of the costs,” says Gilbert Osoro, NHIF Manager in charge of Benefits and Claims. “We pay for about 200 patients per month,” he adds.

However, things may be different in future as the NHIF has signed memorandums of understanding with some medical facilities in India such as the Apollo Navi Mumbai.

With this arrangement, some doctors from Kenya are getting trained in India, while doctors from India do fellowships in Kenya in order to build capacity locally.


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