An expert’s view of Kenya’s healthcare

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Dr. Dan Gikonyo, Founder, Karen Hospital says the status of healthcare system in Kenya is beyond what we have in our neighbouring countries.

By MURUGI NDWIGA

Kenya’s healthcare system has been on a rollercoaster. Lack of proper equipment and expertise, poor service delivery and inadequate medication are some of the challenges the sector has suffered. Despite the shortfalls, there is tremendous improvement compared to the 1980s. “The status of healthcare system in Kenya is beyond what we have in our neighbouring countries. It is something we should be proud of and thank the government for,” says Dr. Dan Gikonyo, Founder, Karen Hospital. Gikonyo, who has seen the medical field evolve with different power regimes from the 1980s. He opines that developments in Kenya’s healthcare system are commendable.

The universal health coverage programme by National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) that caters for patients suffering from diverse ailments and conditions, dialysis machines in different hospitals across the country, cardiac programmes and procurement of medication at the grassroots are among the many tangible developments witnessed in the recent past.

In November 2016, doctors at the Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) made headlines beyond Kenya after a successful 23-hour delicate surgery to separate 2-year-old conjoined twins- Favour and Blessing. This in itself was a celebration of Kenya’s milestone in the health industry. However, the country continues to grapple with some serious and deadly illnesses.

Treating an ailing industry

Among the pressing issues is the growing number of people dying from heart diseases every year, closely followed by cancer. Once thought to be predominant in developed nations, cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) are currently among the top killers in developing nations. According to the World Health Organisation, CVDs are the number one cause of death globally and more people die annually from these diseases than any other. Of these deaths, over three quarters take place in low- and middle-income countries. Cancer follows closely with an estimated annual mortality of over 22,000. These among other diseases can be treated in Kenya. While the sector is well equipped to deal with these unfortunate cases, Gikonyo says it is regrettable that Kenyans are not giving their medics a chance to grow their skills and expand the industry. Ninety per cent of health cases being referred to India and other countries can be treated and managed in Kenya.

“Right now we are taking every person, with minor ailments to India yet referrals should be done on very strong grounds,” says Gikonyo.

Despite availability of specialists, lower cost and advanced medical care, the exodus to India has left a dent in Kenya’s healthcare system. “We should accept that we have trained people locally with the same expertise as anywhere else in the world and support these experts,” says Gikonyo. Engaging other countries to take care of us in not only a loss economically, “but professionals here – the nurses, technicians – will never grow at it because you only get good at something that you practice frequently. We are only helping other countries develop their skills.”

Financial support

Practicing medicine in Kenya is an expensive affair, a huge contrast compared to 1970s when Gikonyo was a student. Then, the government supported students financially and enabled them to study without much financial burden. “The current system is a bit flawed,” he says. Very few students going into specialization are sponsored by the government. Unfortunately, majority who are able to pay for postgraduate courses may not be the best. “The Government must make postgraduate training free for our Kenyan nationals who want to study specialized medicine,” says Gikonyo who has built his brand as a renowned Cardiologist in Kenya with over 30 years’ experience. “We should be able to offer these services to these students at no fee because it is an investment.”

Further, advancement in Kenya’s health sector has not been as quick, owing to various factors. Key medical equipment, for instance, are unavailable in Kenya because of the high taxation system, a cost that finally trickles down to patients. “This is what makes India a cheaper option for those seeking treatment,” he notes. A good example is the Positron Emission Tomography (PET). A PET scan is an imaging test that a doctor uses to check for diseases in a patient’s body, by use of radioactive tracers. “We do not have it here (Kenya) yet we are capable of having it,” says Dr. Gikonyo.

The visit by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s to Kenya in July 2016 could be the long awaited hope in the sector. Modi promised to assist the Kenyan government construct a cancer treatment centre at Kenyatta National Hospital. The Indian government will also help inject some efficiency into Kenya’s healthcare system through capacity building and training programmes.

“I would like to see that exodus to foreign countries cut down. I would like to see post-graduate special training for Kenyan children made free and accessible, such that a very poor child can become a cardiac surgeon without hindrances of payment of fees and other monetary needs,” says daktari of his dreams for the industry and those pursuing the profession.

Email: ndwigam@kim.ac.ke

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