Blame it on the antiquated technology in our local hospitals, the dearth of specialist medical professionals due to brain drain or even plain old snobbery but a lot Kenyans are choosing to fly to foreign destinations to receive medical care.
Accurate statistics are hard to come by but figures from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics seem to suggest that the country is a net exporter of medical tourists. According to some estimates, the number of outbound medical patients from Kenya currently stands at 100,000 - or thereabouts. Naturally, there is no shortage of comers jostling to get a piece of the market. India and South Africa lead the pack with the US and England being more popular with the Kenyan elite and nouveau riche.
The latest entrant looking to upset this old order is Turkey. The country is making its first foray into Kenya's medical tourism market with the entry of Medical Park Hospital Group, a consortium made up 19 hospitals with cutting edge facilities and world class standards.
Pinar Belendir, a Marketing Supervisor with Medical Park who was in Nairobi in October says Turkey has plenty to offer that gives it an edge over the other destinations for outbound medical care and wellness services. Pinar is gracious enough to admit that some of their competitors have deeper roots in Kenya but says there is enough wiggle room in the market to give them a run for their money: "India and South Africa have an edge over us because of the historical ties that they have enjoyed with Kenya. This makes the task of carving out a niche for ourselves difficult but by no means impossible," she said. Cheap is expensive
Medical Park's motto is 'Healthcare for all' and Pinar says the consortium has created a marriage of 'cost' and 'quality' that will makes it the best one, two punch in worldwide medical tourism.
"We believe that everyone in the world should be able to get access to the best healthcare without having to compromise on quality. I don't mean to malign any of our competitors but personally my view is quality should trump any concerns over cost when it's your health on the line.
"Nothing in the world is more expensive than cheap," she stressed. The Istanbul native says 'quality' is not just a watchword for Medical Park but a principle that informs how it takes care of the needs of its patients; "If quality is what you are going for, then Medical Park is definitely your best bet. Our facilities live by the word.
Right now some of our hospitals are even getting patients from medically advanced countries such as the US. That says something," she stresses. This point holds out since, as a quick Google search will reveal in a nanosecond, several Medical Park hospitals have JCI accreditation from the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organisations, the leading accreditation group in the world.
Still, eager to drive the point home, Pinar adds; "Our research shows that a large percentage of the outbound patient traffic from Kenya is for transplant surgeries. Medical Park's organ transplant surgeons are some of the best in the world. Not to put too fine a point on it but currently the survival rate for transplant surgeries in our hospitals is as high as 98 per cent." A package deal
Pinar's sales pitch for Medical Park goes beyond the consortium itself. As she puts it "You can't sell Medical Park without selling Turkey. It's a package deal." The Marketing Supervisor says her home country has an ace in the hole when drumming up business for Medical Park especially in Kenya's case since the two countries are connected by direct flights. "A flight from JKIA to Turkey takes just under seven hours. Here too we have an edge over the competition because flying from Nairobi to the other medical tourism destinations could take as long as 13 hours. The rigors of long flights can have quite an impact on some patients," she said.
Another plus with choosing Medical Park, Pinar adds, is a patient has the bucket-list-worthy opportunity, should time and expense permit, to take in Turkey as a tourist; "From cultural and historical sites to architectural wonders, Turkey has a lot to offer history buffs and even those who want to savour our culinary delights," she said. Patient Service
Medical Park has a dedicated International Patient Service portal that can be accessed online but locally, it's repped by Margaret Nyokabi Mungai who dabbles as a guide and fixer when Pinar is in town. Mungai's main task is to make arrangements for potential patients to consult with a team of doctors in Turkey once they hand in their medical files to her;
"We like to ensure that communication between the patient's doctors in Kenya and the Medical Park specialists in Turkey is as seamless as possible. It's always important to get a second opinion and our clients know that they can trust the feedback from our doctors," she explains.
"We have a variety of packages for surgical operations and treatment. Consulting with our doctors is free so the patients need not worry about that. The window for consultation sessions is normally just three days," she adds.
"We also don't have a long waiting list for now so quick service is guaranteed."
It's here that Pinar notes again, "The quotations for different packages vary depending on the surgical operations and treatment options being sought. It's not like buying a shirt so quoting a specific figure is difficult," she says.
"We pride ourselves with the fact that our packages are competitively priced so the patient will always get their money's worth," she adds. A home away from home
Once they land in Turkey, Pinar says, Medical Park spares no expense in providing comfortable accommodations for its patients.
"All our patients have private rooms in our hospitals. We work very hard to make them feel at home since being in a hospital doesn't take away the fact that they are in a foreign country," she says.
'Our International Patients Centre provides our guests with the highest quality medical and non-medical services for their health and comfort. Our Marketing Division conducts our group's international public relations activities while our Operations Division administers the international patients' efficient transfer to our facilities."
"We offer a complete service for our international patients from coming to Turkey till returning back to their countries by caring with every detail such as their transportation, transfers, accommodation, guidance to treatment and medications."
Most patients don't travel alone and Pinar says Medical Park provides free accommodation when it's a party of two.
"We can provide free accommodation for a patient who comes in with only one family member but in the instances when it's more than one person then we can help arrange for suitable lodgings at their expense," she said. "Having family members close is good for keeping the patients in high spirits. There is even some research that shows that it helps patients recover quicker. "We try to do our best to ensure that such family members don't have to pay through their nose to be near their loved ones," Pinar adds.
"One of the things that make this country so appealing is that Kenyans are very quick on the uptake when it comes to new products and services," Pinar responds to a question about whether Medical Park is getting any positive feedback in its Kenyan pivot. "This is my third visit to the country and from my interactions with Kenyans at trade fairs and exhibitions I can tell that Medical Park can make a dent in this market," she said.
"Its steady progress and we're learning more as we go."
If you prefer a from-the-horse's-mouth take on Medical Park's bona fides as a medical tourism destination then here is one. Five-year-old Alex Wambugu had a shunt operation for brain tumor performed at Medical Park's Hospital in Istanbul a while back. Wambugu's parents wrote this testimonial after their visit;
'Dear Pinar, I want to thank you and the medical park staff, doctors and nurses for the support and care they have given Alex and us.
We felt very much at home and we really appreciate the care you gave our son."
Two other former Kenyan Medical Park patients I contacted had similarly effusive appraisals. Medical Park is currently making plans to open a brick and mortar agency in Nairobi. In the meantime Mesdames Pinar and Mungai can be reached via their e-mail addresses firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com , respectively. As the mood of the interview slackened I pressed Pinar for a parting shot and she came up with something that I think sums up all her previous statements with a self-effacing succinctness; "It's easy to say we are the best in the business so I will do you one better."
"At Medical Park we're not in the 'please come and see us again' business. Of course we would love to see our patients again but only when they're well . Repeat business is good but as a team we work very hard to provide our patients with the best possible treatment we can to cure them."