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Out of Africa Cures for Ailing Health Systems Found in Foreign Lands


All else had failed — most importantly, her kidney and plans for an organ transplant operation. Millicent Njeri was desperate. The 24-year-old Kenyan woman had been waiting for six months to have her kidney replaced with a new one that would also accommodate an enlarged heart, but three scheduled operations at a hospital in Nairobi were postponed. Down to just 88 pounds and in deteriorating health, Njeri and her husband, Ralph King’ara, weighed their options and — like a growing number of Kenyans who are forced to seek medical tourism procedures abroad – out of Africa they went.

Hindsight is 20/20, but if the couple could have seen earlier that a trip to India would result in a successful organ transplant operation and a new lease on life, King’ara would have made arrangements sooner rather than later, and his wife would have avoided weakening dialysis and tens of thousands of dollars in medical expenses.

Kenya has become a less-than-willing exporter of medical tourism to markets like India, South Africa, the United States and United Kingdom, each eager to lure the country’s elite and nouveau riche. Blame the exodus on antiquated technology at local hospitals or a dearth of medical specialists, the fact is that about 100,000 medical tourism patients from Kenya travel to foreign destinations each year, according to the Kenya Bureau of Statistics.

Dr. Harun A. Otieno, an interventional cardiologist and senior lecturer at the Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi, told Daily Nation that treatment abroad for cancer, kidney and heart problems are most common; a harsh reality that does not bode well for Kenya, a country hoping to streamline its health care system and become a medical tourism destination for treatment itself in the region and across Africa.

“Seventy to 80 percent of Kenyans travel to India whereas another 10 percent go to South America,” said Otieno. “The rest settle for America and Europe. We (Kenya) lose about Sh

Kenya has become a less-than willing exporter of medical tourism to markets like India, South Africa, the United States and United Kingdom, each eager to lure the country’s elite and nouveau riche.

7 billion annually from Kenyans who travel in search of medical interventions; yet, facilities can be improved or made more accessible and affordable on our soil.”

Looks Are Deceiving

With a population of more than 43 million, Kenya is one of the most populous sovereign nations in East Africa. Boasting some of the most impressive scenery in the world including vast savannah, rugged mountain ranges and stunning national parks, Kenya is a popular destination for tourists. But despite its breathtaking natural beauty, Kenya faces a number of serious problems including widespread poverty, income inequality and the more immediate challenge of providing healthcare to its countrymen.

Making matters worse, healthcare workers in Kenya went on strike last year to protest the government’s decision to devolve funding responsibility for services from national to county government hands.

“When key service providers like health workers go on strike, it is very distressing because it is a matter of life and death,” said James Macharia, cabinet secretary of health, who pleaded for healthcare workers to return to work. “Teachers can go on strike even for three months and nobody will die.”

Like any developing country, Kenya has more problems than answers. For the financially endowed seeking facilities laced with high technology and top doctors, medical tourism has become a quick-fix for what ails Kenya’s healthcare system.

Window for Investment

The increase in the number of medical travelers leaving Kenya for foreign destinations has opened a window of investment for entrepreneur nations. Turkey is the latest country looking to gain entry into the Kenyan outbound medical tourism market. Pinar Belendir, a marketing supervisor with Medical Park Hospital Group, said the consortium of 19 hospitals in Turkey is ready to give countries with longer histories of cooperation with Kenya a run for their money.

“The task of carving out a niche is difficult, but by no means impossible,” she said. By no means does Kenya have a monopoly on citizens traveling abroad for healthcare among African nations. Patients from Nigeria, Tanzania and Congo not only routinely travel to India for scheduled health checks, but for life-saving surgeries as well.

Mary Ikasoboh, a Nigerian citizen, first visited the Indian city of Ahmedabad last year, when she accompanied a friend to HCG Multispecialty Hospital for cancer treatment. A witness to her friend’s recovery and return to work, Ikasoboh didn’t think twice when her 56-year-old brother, Michael, suffered from hip injury and enlarged prostate. She called up the hospital in Ahmedabad and booked him for surgery at HCG Multispecialty.

“Pleasant and caring attitude toward the patients begins healing before treatment,” she told The Times of India. “Since advanced medical care is not readily available in our country, coming here (Ahmedabad) for treatment makes sense as we get good treatment at one-fourth the cost as compared to other countries with similar kinds of facilities.”

Dr. Bharat Gadhvi, chief executive officer at HCG, said the hospital has representatives throughout Africa to educate potential patients about cancer, orthopedic, urological, gastrointestinal and cardiac procedures in India.

Ralph King’ara and Millicent Njeri are happy to have traveled to India, where the 24-year-old Kenyan woman was treated for kidney failure and an enlarged heart.

At any Expense

Shalby Hospitals, which has a clinic in Nairobi, hosted 975 medical tourism patients from foreign destinations in 2013 for procedures, from joint replacements and spinal surgeries to dental and cosmetic processes.

“African patients want quality and do not care about money,” said Dr. Vikram Shah, chairman and medical director at Shalby Hospitals. “They have limited options of medical treatment and hospitals here offer them quality treatment.”

Shahid Pervez, of Apollo Hospital in India, said his facility treats about 500 international patients each year – many from Africa – for transplants including stem cells, liver, and bone marrow.

“Nairobi has good infrastructure, but locals still prefer to come here for specialized treatments as they are still building on skilled manpower,” said Mayur Trivedi, director of international and specialty marketing at Sterling Hospitals. “In the rest of Africa, there are not enough services or expertise.”

Bridging that gap and keeping Africans at home for treatments won’t come anytime soon, but the vision is not lost on Dr. Otieno and his colleagues in Kenya.

“We seek to be the best healthcare delivery destination in the region, which will take time, resources and goodwill,” said Otieno, a fellow of the American College of Cardiology.

“We aspire to keep Kenyan patients at home and bring Eastern Africans to Kenya.”

After medical tests identified her sister as a possible kidney donor, preparations were made for Millicent Njeri to leave Kenya and seek treatment at the Indraprastha Apollo Hospital in India. Upon arrival in New Delhi, Njeri was placed on medication to manage her rheumatic heart disease before the kidney transplant could be performed a week later.

Full of gratitude for the “remarkable personalized service” she received during the course of her one-and-a-half-month stay in India, Njeri is bursting with the joy of seeing her 4-yearold daughter, Marian, grow; something she had almost lost hope on when all else had failed.

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