A middle-class gentleman from the UK plans his holidays to coincide with his dental appointments. A Ugandan lady who life prospects the doctors have written off boards a plane to seek further help as does as a Kenyan diagnosed with the dreadful disease of Cancer. What the English Gentleman, the Ugandan Lady and the Kenyan gentleman have in common is that they are all heading to India; the global centre for medical tourism.
I had heard many people talk about the making of ‘medical miracles’ in India but it was never so important until I chanced upon a 6 part program on Al Jazeera called Indian Hospital. It is a showcase of the realities of the industry and why India’s Medical Tourism Industry has grown to 1.1 million tourists with revenues of US$ 2.4 billion between 2009 and 2012. This unique observational documentary series shines a light on Indian society illuminating the complexities and dilemmas of modern India through the extraordinarily varied lives of patients and medical staff working at the Narayana Hrudayalaya Hospital Complex in Bangalore.
WHO defines medical tourists as people who cross international borders for the exclusive purpose of obtaining medical services. Some argue that the essence of medical tourism is the combination of good medical practice and visits to scenic locations that help one to recuperate. Worldwide, medical tourism is now a US$ 100 billion industry which can no longer be ignored. However, India has taken the ball and run with it becoming the face of medical tourism. Sadly, for the African Continent, Wikipedia lists South Africa as the only Country in Africa with a notable medical tourism industry.
India’s position is the result of a combination of factors. First, the rising costs of medical care in the developed world have meant that a lot of people who want to access elective surgeries and affordable treatments for such conditions as cancer will head to India; it is cost effective. Secondly, India has a very high number of English-speaking doctors who are well-qualified. Third, both the Government of India and the Private Sector has invested heavily in medical infrastructure. India has the latest medical technology. The Indian Government has also provided incentives for the Medical Entrepreneurs to invest in their enterprises. The Government is also encouraging visitors by providing the ‘M Visa’ ( Medical Visa whose applications are fast tracked. As a result the industry all inclusive packages for medical tourists that include flights, transfers, hotels, treatment and post-operation vacations have developed. Fourth, their hospitals have worked to attain international accreditation meaning that insurance companies from the western world can pay and in fact would want for medical services in Indian Hospitals.
Kenya is looking for ways to increase its tourism numbers especially by redefining the tourism package. We are seeing an increase in business and conference tourism vis-à-vis the traditional leisure tourism; these are good signs. We probably need to go further and look at other options such as medical tourism for growth. It seems that much of what is touted as India’s comparative advantages for medical tourism are possible in Kenya. I recall when on community service at the Nairobi Hospital around nine years ago, people would fly in to Nairobi from neighboring countries to access medical care especially dialysis at the Hospital. We have many other hospitals now that are capable of meeting the medical requirements of many people from the African Continent. Kenyans are also very enterprising and it is therefore easy to see how they can create medical enterprises that would compete with India. It goes without saying Kenya’s scenic beauty is unrivalled and coupled with the climate would offer amazing post-operation vacations.
The fundamental question however, is whether our government doesn’t see this as an opportunity or is it just too busy with the looting of public funds – note the NHIF saga – to even start thinking about exploiting this potential. Furthermore, to encourage medical tourists to come here, our hospitals must not only have the equipment and be internationally accredited; they need to have enough doctors. At the moment, Kenya has 7,000 doctors serving a population of over 40 million. They are simply not enough for us let alone for visitors but as is the case with India and as sad as it may be, there always more than enough doctors for those with the means.
Investment in medical technology is mandatory; if not for the medical tourists, at least for our sake. In recent times, a lot of attention has been drawn to the fact that non-communicable diseases like Cancer and Diabetes are on the rise. Our Minister for Health, Prof. Anyang’ Nyong’o, himself a cancer survivor who sought treatment in the USA, has found the need to start a cancer foundation. Hopefully, that is not at the expense of ensuring that the government invests in the requisite medical infrastructure. Furthermore, the government needs to encourage the training of doctors and other medical personnel. It should be government policy to increase the number of students enrolled at the medical training institutions in Kenya. Government should also offer scholarships and other forms of financial aid to encourage many of our doctors to specialize in fields such as cardiology and oncology.
I don’t what the government is doing, if anything at all to achieve some of these basic goals at all. In the coming blog post, I will assess the National Health Policy and see if and so how the government is planning to tap into some of these opportunities that would work to make Vision 2030 possible.