Three decades ago, an ambitious young journalist, Sammy Masara, was privileged to join a government delegation to Bangkok, Thailand, for an economic forum. The avid curiosity in him noted that Thailand had directories for every sector and it dawned on him that Kenya had no such repository easily available to the public.
This was many years ago, when the Internet was unheard of and desktop computers and diskettes were whispered about. Journalists filed their stories in hard copy and those outside of the Capital had to send them through local courier arrangements with the public bus drivers plying their route. The only directory known was published by the postal corporation and was available at the red public telephone booths that lined the post office verandas. It was a privilege to own a telephone in your house.
The young man came back home with a dream to set up directories for every sector in Kenya despite the fact that not many people could conceptualise this notion. The biggest challenge was gathering the necessary data that would constitute the directories.
Like all dreams, this one endured its fair share of panel beating, both in a gentle manner from loved ones who felt it was out of reach, and not so gentle ones who laughed it off. But, Sammy was determined to wake up and work on his dream. He may have trimmed it to realistic expectations, but he delivered nevertheless.
As the 80s came to a close, he had successfully set up Express Communications Ltd, which produced an education directory. This was the most robust industry back then. By 1994, he ventured into the uncharted territory of healthcare by publishing the first-ever Kenya Medical Directory. I can imagine just how slim this edition was, with a few hundred doctors with private clinics, a handful of private hospitals in the country and the little-known medical equipment and supplies industry, but he winged it. The very first version of google for the health industry in Kenya was born.
These baby steps motivated this man to go on to build two directories that have stood the test of time, transitioning with the advent of technology from exclusively print editions to include online digital platforms accessible at the click of a button. It has been a labour of love for Sammy despite many of us taking the platforms for granted.
Why has the Kenya Medical Directory particularly been so important? Since the advent of formal medical practice in Kenya, the law expressly prohibited medical service providers and institutions from advertising their services. For this reason, a gap was created between the providers and the service seekers that was easily filled by those who did not fall under the jurisdiction of this regulation.
The directory was the closest thing to information source about the health sector, but, unfortunately, it was mostly distributed to the industry players and Wanjiku remained in the dark. This created a culture that only allowed herbalists and witch doctors to dominate the advertising space.
Fast forward to the Internet era and a very deliberate and well implemented strategy by India to position itself as a medical tourism hub, and Kenyans were flooded with treatment options from outside the borders. At the click of a button, a cancer patient could easily select a provider and book an appointment with a doctor from the comfort of her living room. The travel industry quickly aligned itself, providing packages for visa assistance, travel and accommodation and, voila, an unmet need had been fully serviced.
DROP THE BALL
The patient always has a right to choose where to go for care, including beyond the borders of Kenya. However, without adequate information on what is locally available, the patient is denied an opportunity to make an informed choice.
It is, therefore, important to find out, now that we have acknowledged that we dropped the ball, how we are righting this. In 2016, the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Council made important amendments to the law that permitted advertising, with rules governing advertising to ultimately protect the patient. This has seen institutions and practitioners set up websites, posters, banners and even television advertisements to educate the public on what we have right here at home. Further, there has been great strides made in using the social media space for information sharing and collection of real time feedback from the service users.
The beauty about the opening up of this space is that it has created avenues for service users to publicly give continuous feedback on the quality of care received and demand accountability in real time. Though this privilege may occasionally be misused, it is key in driving the change we seek as potential patients of our healthcare providers. It allows for positive feedback that serves as a motivation to continue to do better, but, further, a constant prodding to up the game and aim for international standards.
The result has not only been more awareness on existing options for Kenyans, but also it has put Kenya on the platform as a medical tourism destination for our neighbours. For us at home, the grass may be greener on the other side, but to others, we are the other side.
What started as a dream to set up a medical directory has morphed into a major achievement as Express Communications Ltd joins hands with Amref Health Africa to host the very first-ever Kenya Healthcare Convention, whose focus it to showcase what Kenya has to offer in the health sector. The event is critical to the realisation of universal health coverage by demonstrating our capacity.
For two days, we shall focus on cultivating the grass on our patch, demonstrating that Kenya is indeed capable of providing quality healthcare. Wanjiku needs to know she can access dialysis in her local county hospital just as she should know that she can have a hair transplant two streets down from her office. This is important to all of us because as long as we are alive, we are all the potential customers of this sector.
Dr Bosire is an obstetrician/gynaecologist