Operations in public hospitals might be grounded by an acute shortage of key staff.
A Nation survey found the institutions lack adequate numbers of medical officers, dentists, nurses, midwives and other specialists, raising questions about the provision of effective and efficient healthcare services.
Matters have been complicated by an exodus of doctors and nurses for greener pastures abroad. For example, Coast Province has a shortage of 1,883 staff.
The region’s director of medical services, Dr Maurice Siminyu, said the 23 hospitals in the area were short of 55 medical officers, 17 dentists, 29 specialists and 773 nurses.
Dr Siminyu said the hospitals had only 60 medical officers, 15 dentists, 43 specialists and 1,172 nurses.
The country, according to the head of the National Nurses Association of Kenya, Mr Luke Kodambo, has a shortage of 6,000 nurses.
The World Health Organisation recommends a nurse-patient ratio of 200:100,000. Kenya’s ratio stands at 50:100,000.
These statistics paint a grim picture of service delivery in public hospitals and raise questions about the government’s commitment to meeting the Millennium Development Goals which include reduction of child and maternal mortality and eradication of malaria and other diseases by 2015.
“Nurses remain critical workers in the healthcare system and the current shortage is overburdening the staff,” Mr Kodambo said in an interview.
Medical experts blame the crisis on low funding for public hospitals. However, the chief nursing officer, Mr Chris Rakuomy, says understaffing in public hospitals is a global challenge.
Medical Services minister Anyang’ Nyong’o acknowledged that most medical staff were leaving for better pay and studies abroad.
“You cannot prevent people from leaving for other places,” he told the Nation in an interview.
Past reports have singled out Britain, the United States of America, Australia, New Zealand and Finland as the preferred destinations of Kenyan medical staff relocating abroad.
In Africa, Botswana and South Africa are the favourites with nurses seeking to work in health facilities with a better pay package.
Prof Nyong’o said the ministry could only train a limited number of nurses annually because admission is pegged on bed capacity.
Mr Kodambo said that nurses in public health facilities were not paid as well as other civil servants.
With a population of 40 million, Mr Kodambo estimated that Kenya needed approximately 26,000-30,000 nurses in public health facilities.
“Sadly, Kenya currently has a total of 18,000 nurses in public health facilities, 2,000 of whom are employed by development partners in various projects,” he said.
The latest Economic Survey says the number of registered nurses rose from 26,998 in 2009 to 29,678 last year.