DR BETTY GIKONYO is the Chief Executive Officer of Karen Hospital, which she established five years ago with her husband, Dr Dan Gikonyo. Critics gave them one month to close shop, but the multi-million hospital is still running today despite several challenges. In a candid interview at her cosy home in Lavington, she shares with KIUNDU WAWERU about her life
The construction of Karen Hospital began in 2003 and in March 2006 we opened its doors and already we are an ISO 9001:2008 certified institution. As the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), it is my responsibility to persist and maintain the high standards of the hospital.
Karen Hospital is a culmination of a life-long dream dating back to the days when we were studying cardiology in Minnesota, USA between 1982 and 1985. When we got back, we searched for land to build the hospital in the 1990s. We wanted to be close to existing hospitals but land in those areas was out of reach.
Dr Betty Gikonyo
We intensified our search in various locations but were unable to get appropriate land for a hospital, so we decided to use the land we had purchased in the late 1980s for our retirement home as the hospital site.
We legally changed the land use from residential to commercial and were prepared to face the consequences of building a hospital far from Nairobi’s Central Business District.
When we started, our professional colleagues wondered why we opted to start a hospital. According to them, doctors are supposed to patronise hospitals, not put up theirs. Then there was the fact that the project required a heavy monetary investment.
My husband and I went knocking on the doors of numerous banking institutions asking for loans to build and equip the hospital. Some laughed in our faces while others said they would get back to us, which they didn’t. Eventually, Kenya Commercial Bank accepted to give us the loan.
Once the hospital was set up, we had to deal with ensuring our cash flow was adequate to provide for the monthly financial obligations, mainly paying salaries, suppliers and overheads. At that time, the business was under capitalised and the greatest challenge was maintaining the confidence of our suppliers, as we were growing at a faster rate than our cash flow could support.
Dealing with suppliers who kept demanding for payments was a daily pre-occupation. Some even boycotted delivering goods until we paid pending cheques.
Then there were transport problems for our staff as very few public vehicles plied the Lang’ata Road between Bomas of Kenya and Karen Shopping Centre.
Additionally, we had attracted many highly qualified medical professionals who believed in our vision, but our challenge was retaining them in an uncertain financial environment. Fortunately, we had many vision bearers who saw the future was bright but understood the road was going to be bumpy, therefore, they multi-tasked and took responsibilities outside their job descriptions.
One of our greatest challenge is fighting the perception that we are an elitist hospital. I think this has to do with the fact that we are situated in a leafy suburb, plus our medical colleagues and those institutions that saw us an unexpected threat fanned the perception that we were a high-cost institution out of reach for many people.
What people don’t know is that everybody is welcome to Karen Hospital. If you come to the hospital today, you will find ordinary patients either admitted or at the outpatients section.
Being located in Karen does not mean we cater only to high-class residents. We also care for people from the environs like Ngong, Kiserian, Dagoretti and even Kikuyu. Also, we charge a lot less for an outpatient to see a doctor compared to other hospitals.
We are striving to offer quality general and specialised medical services and we try to reach as many people from all counties. We have established satellite clinics in Nairobi’s city centre, in Nyeri and Nakuru. We also provide specialised services across East and Central Africa, namely Burundi, DR Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda among others. Our aim is to take affordable and quality medical services closer to the people.
Our greatest achievement and pride lies in the fact that Karen Hospital has provided employment to over 400 Kenyans, most of whom are under 35 years; and that we are contributing to the attainment of Vision 2030 by increasing access to quality and affordable medical services to Kenyans and the East African community.
Healthcare in Kenya is very expensive, which is why many people seek medical care from India and elsewhere. The cost of doing business in Kenya and the cost of living is also very high. To compound matters, most Kenyans pay for healthcare from their pocket. Research shows that 80 per cent of medical payments are out of pocket, which are a real burden, but they can be lightened by all encompassing health-cover insurance.
We must come up with solutions and one of the things we are doing at Karen Hospital is establishing international linkages with Indian and European hospitals so that we can transfer expertise and technology. In other words, we want to bring India and other first world medical providers to Kenyans so that they don’t have to travel there.
As a country we need to provide health care even in the private sector at prices that majority of Kenyans can afford. The causes of high medical bills need to be addressed, with the first being doctors’ professional fees. There are key guidelines from Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board that guide them on what to charge for various services.
Unfortunately these guidelines have not been enforced and hospitals, patients, insurers and other third party payers are left to negotiate with doctors. Other professions like lawyers, architects and engineers have clear guidelines usually in the form of percentages that they charge for services rendered. There should be similar clear and enforceable professional fee structures for medical practitioners.
The Gikonyo's [Photo/Courtesy]
The second contributor to a high medical bill is the consumables and medical equipment that are used in an operation, in ICU or any other department in the provision of a service. Kenya is not a manufacturer of the majority of these and, therefore, the prices can be exorbitant.
However, if hospitals got together and purchased these consumables and equipment in large volume, they would enjoy discounts, which they would then pass on to patients and reduce their bills.
I have the ability to multi-task and take up responsibilities that would overwhelm many people. Over the last 25 years I have worked as the chief paediatric cardiologist and the chief administrator of Nairobi Heart Clinic, Laser Medical Services and Laser Clinical Labs.
During the same period, I founded the Heart to Heart Foundation, which is a medical charity that assists needy children with heart conditions. In 1993 we pioneered the now famous Heart Runs.
I’m also an active member of the University of Nairobi Council since 2001. Last year, I was appointed its founder chair. I spearheaded the launch of its Alumni Association and thus far we have over 100,000 alumni graduates.