Doctors deserve fair salaries but there’s sickening impunity

Thursday February 16 2017

Striking doctors at Uhuru Park in Nairobi on February 15, 2017. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Striking doctors at Uhuru Park in Nairobi on February 15, 2017. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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I have been reading, rather nostalgically, Poems from East Africa by David Cook and David Rubadiri, a poor-quality copy of which I recently bought. This was an important book in the intellectual development of East Africa and it is a pity to see such a book reproduced with errors recently introduced.

The themes of these poems captured the concerns of the generation before us – disillusionment with the corruption and dictatorship of the post-independence era, fear for the future and, often, hope.

Through the eyes of Jared Angira, Jonathan Kariara, Okot P’Bitek and so many others of that golden generation, we read not just the forlorn hope of the man asking God to send a bit of rain so that grass might grow if his house burns or the other one lamenting the neglect of his “beer horn” by wives distracted by the leopard up the Muu tree, but we also appreciate the audacious idealism of these young people and their intellectual courage in the face of disappointment.

Today, young people just want to have money, no matter how. Reading these poems and reflecting on the other literature and interactions of my age, I can see why we turned out the way we did.

And it is why I am uneasy about Kenya’s collective silence, certainly my own silence, in the face of what we know to be largely a sham.

As a traumatised victim of medical malpractice and as a journalist who has listened to many stories from hospitals, there is actually little that I would characterise as heroic about many of our doctors.


My grandfather, Joseph M’Rimberia, died after doctors forgot cotton wool in his stomach. He was an old man, he didn’t survive the second operation to remove the filth left behind after surgery.

Recently, family friends took their 90-year-old father to hospital because he appeared anaemic. It turned out he had fallen and broken his hip.

Though he was frail from pain and a succession of stomach infections, the doctors were stopped literally inside the theatre as they prepared to conduct a hip replacement operation on him.

Recently, I met a friend at a hospital parking lot, looking very distressed. His sister-in-law had gone to hospital for the removal of a harmless, benign but uncomfortable mass on her chest.

After what appeared to be a routine, one-day operation, she started bleeding internally and was taken back to theatre.

From the theatre she was taken to the intensive care unit where she lived long enough to accumulate a massive bill: from a mainly cosmetic operation to death and destitution in a matter of weeks.

I have read and heard many stories of malpractice and the most outrageous incompetence among our doctors. I have heard of doctors who puncture patient’s stomach during endoscopies, thereby causing death.

I have heard of an orthopaedic surgeon who is so incompetent that his blunders are used to identify him, like fingerprints.


Finally, I am not convinced that doctors give that much of a hoot for patients. They have been away for more than two months and they wanted to shut down all the hospitals in the country for 48 hours.

How many of us would have died in that time? How many of us, especially those who can’t afford private hospitals, have died in those two months?

My own personal opinion is that doctors deserve a fair salary, way more than they are currently paid and that their conditions of work on many occasions are an outright scandal.

But at the same time, I know that the impunity in our hospitals is worse than in politics. Your stupid mistakes kill, maim and destroy other human beings without accountability. This must end.

Secondly, doctors are opposed to the devolution of health. There is no way a centralised monolith can manage such a diverse and critical service.

In the past, doctors would be posted to some far-flung place. Many would rarely leave the city but would continue earning a salary. They would visit their stations in the manner of consultants while in actual fact they were on the staff.

But you can’t do that if there is a governor and local officials watching over what you are doing. This is partly what the doctors are resisting, along with the difficulties of working for corrupt and inept county governments.


In this, I think, they have entered into an unholy alliance with the Afya House crowd, who also are loath to see health devolved because they want the largesse to remain in Nairobi.

Kenya’s medical profession requires not good public relations and theatrics but a complete overhaul from training to the institutions and the laws that govern it.

You can only cover up the deaths of Kenyans for so long, but one day soon, we shall know the truth. It’s the only way to remain true to the idealism and courage of those young people so many years ago.