Almost a decade ago, India Medical Times carried a report that painted a grim picture of the state of medical tourism in Kenya. 50,000 patients from Kenya , and rising on a y-to-y basis, were expected to visit India for medical therapy that year alone. A figure of one tenth of the cost of medical treatment in India when compared to Kenya was fronted as a key driver of this imbalance.
Among the speakers at the event, a medical tourism conference in Nairobi aimed at the African market, was a Dr. S. R. Mishra. The then chief executive officer of Mediheal Hospital echoed others speakers sentiments on India’s unparalleled offerings in both conventional and alternative medicine.
Today, Dr Mishra acts as the chairman of Mediheal Group of hospitals. Today, Kenya’s health minister Sicily Kariuki will oversee the signing of an MOU between the Mishra lead hospital and Palo Alto, CA based radiation oncology treatments and software maker Varian Medical Systems.
The MOU will see Varian supply Mediheal with linear accelerators. Otherwise known as LINAC machines, this medical equipment is valued for its ability to deliver cancer therapy with precision. RadiologyInfo.org , a publication of the Radiology Society of North America, describes LINAC as follows:
A linear accelerator (LINAC) customizes high energy x-rays or electrons to conform to a tumor’s shape and destroy cancer cells while sparing surrounding normal tissue. It features several built-in safety measures to ensure that it will not deliver a higher dose than prescribed.
Assessing The Mediheal – Varian Linear Accelerator Deal: The Good, The Uncertain & The State of Medical Tourism in Kenya
From a health systems standpoint, the availability of this swanky piece of medical equipment to the Kenyan healthcare market is shot in the arm for the pillar, health technologies. Nonetheless, a universal health care (UHC) purist may not be too impressed.
Calls sounding alarm of the hijacking of the UHC agenda by private health providers for profit continue to rise. For this group of observers, a health system meant to deliver UHC is designed with private interests driving the agenda. This deal could be seen in these quarters as antithetical. Moreover, the debate on whether the private health sector can deliver UHC’s ideals of accessibility and, affordability remains unsettled.
It does not help that the health minister will preside over a private sector event, whilst the country stands incensed over recent corruption scandals at Ayfa house. To a populace weary of the government’s preparedness to match deed and speak in providing universal healthcare, such high level government dalliance with the private health sector is a kick in the gut.
However, to Mediheal and Variance, progress is the word. Indeed progress has been the mantra in assessments of Kenya as a medical tourism destination. A year ago, local publication Business Daily celebrated a Unctad 2017 report of the emergence of Kenya as a top medical tourism destination. In Kenya, Africans seeking highly specialized medical and wellness services have found a treatment Mecca.
In a sector where true statistics are hard to come by – this article puts Kenyans seeking healthcare in India at 10,000 per year, the Mediheal-Variance deal is illuminating on the state of medical tourism in Kenya.
Why this multi-million deal?
It could be that combined government and private sector efforts have seen more Kenyans today seek care locally than abroad. After all, the investment has to pay for itself. Therefore, the two industry leaders must have seen value in the Kenyan market.
Maybe it is the bursting of the India myth as an ideal medical tourism destination with affordable, quality health care.
Government efforts to curb medical pilgrimages can be cited here too. Increasing assertiveness by Kenyan doctors as capable, may have also finally bore fruits. The availability of top of the range equipment, such as LINAC that’s the subject of this deal, could well help realise the potential of Kenyan doctors.
Thus the deal may help stem brain drain. It should at least provide the Kenyan health system with an opportunity to improve efficiency and outcomes in the management of patients requiring specialized care. Let’s not forget that the money is good too. NHIF reforms have seen money flow into the Kenyan health system – unethically in favor of private health sector, some argue. Story for another day.
But we have to ask: Could this deal be a foray deeper into the abyss of prescribing private solutions to public problems? The Mediheal – Variance deal can be seen as a direct response to all these subtle nudges. It signifies that for medical tourism in Kenya, it’s a case of many small streams making one big river.