The East Africa Health Expo 2022 themed ‘’East Africa as a Hub for Specialized Medical Care, Investments in Health, and Innovative Healthcare Solutions,’’ was held at Strathmore University from the 25th to the 27th of May. The Expo was sponsored by Strathmore University Business School (SBS), the Kenya Healthcare Federation (KHF), the UN-SDG Platform, the Ministry for Health (MOH) and Open Phences. It attracted 352 delegates from 10 countries and 52 exhibitors that participated both physically and virtually; showcasing a vibrant and innovative health sector. The Expo also provided a platform for health experts from different East African countries to engage in meaningful panel sessions and discussions to bolster the health sector in East Africa. These included; governments, private sector actors, development partners, researchers, academics, and expert consultants from other countries.
In her welcoming remarks, Dr. Anastasia Nyalita noted that the East Africa Health Expo 2022 provided an opportunity for the East African region healthcare stakeholders to pull together and leverage the existing expertise and ensure that the region is a go-to-place when it comes to healthcare. Dr. Anastasia Nyalita also encouraged participants to look into the private sector priority framework to help in informing collaboration going forward.
Dr. Kanyenje Gakombe, the Chairperson of KHF, echoed the sentiment that emerging issues should be tackled first, namely, Universal Healthcare Coverage (UHC), digitalization, human resources for health (HRH) and Supply Chain. “If we are going to catch up with the world, we will have to catch up at a faster pace. We need a working East Africa if we can no longer fly to India for healthcare. As a region, if we can deliver solutions like Mpesa, we know we do not always have to be followers. Care should be available here with as good a quality and as good a price. We need to leapfrog with innovative solutions that make us a hub for healthcare.”
Africa spends 6 billion USD on overseas treatment annually. South Africa, Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt dominate the African medical tourism landscape. Kenya is an emerging player in Sub-Saharan Africa. Ms. Flora Mutahi, the Chairperson for the Kenya Private Sector Alliance, said that one of the key elements to realizing the dream of East Africa becoming a medical tourism hub is to involve the private sector as a key enabler – promoting innovation and delivery of quality care. She reminded the audience that healthcare costs continue to be one of the factors that give rise to poverty across the continent.
Challenging the audience to reflect on building an investment case for innovation in healthcare, Nicholas Nesbitt, Chairman East Africa Business Council remarked, “We need to teach the rest of the world that we can succeed as entrepreneurs rather than just athletes and tour guides. How are we going to overcome that mindset so we can win over investors? It’s a whole process around innovation. We have to have the agility in our processes to bob and weave to reach our target.’’ He also urged that there needs to be a paradigm shift for the region to become a hub. The best doctors globally should be attracted to work here, “Competition is not the foreign doctor, competition is mediocrity,” he said. He also suggested that not enough Kenyan investors are incentivized to invest in healthcare and this issue needs to be addressed to bolster the sector.
Dr. Ian Clarke, Chair of the East Africa Healthcare Federation, remarked that digitalization and the rise of virtual platforms and smartphones will bring major changes and disruptions to the sector. Although regulatory frameworks will need to be put in place to ensure these platforms are used efficiently, the issue of medical politics must also be addressed and unnecessary delays to accessing healthcare must be avoided. Dr. Clarke suggested that a common-sense approach be adopted in the healthcare sector. In his book entitled, “The man with the key has gone!” Dr. Clarke recounts his frustrations and triumphs delivering healthcare in Uganda many years ago that will resonate with healthcare providers across the region. Indeed, many people outside the region will not understand the title of the book. However, most rural healthcare providers are familiar with stories of stores that had key medical supplies that were kept under lock and key and if the person responsible for the store had left for the day, it was extremely challenging to access supplies. The speed at which technology has revolutionized the sector has paved the way for more efficient delivery of healthcare services and management of resources.
Dr. Samora Otieno, a leading healthcare expert from the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, advocated for an ecosystem approach that includes the private sector, government actors and development partners to create a space where the private and public sectors can interact meaningfully. Brendan Kwesiga, the Technical Health Financing Officer from the World Health Organization supported the call for an ecosystem approach. He suggested that the collaborations should go beyond the medical sector and include other Ministries as medical tourism requires other specialist skills to be imparted to the medical sector. He emphasized that it requires the involvement of other sectors such as the aviation and hospitality sectors. The call for an ecosystem approach must extend regionally, urged Dr. Francis Mwanisi, Registrar of Private Hospitals, Tanzania. He remarked, “We can move together as a powerful block if we focus on building one strong community to promote intracontinental and intercontinental medical tourism with a clear vision of what we want to achieve.”
South Sudan, a relatively young country in the region, was represented by Dr. Kediende Chong, Director General for International Health & Coordination. He remarked that although many of the health services in South Sudan are supported by international organizations, there is a clear commitment by the government to forge more partnerships with the private sector. These alliances can help to build a more resilient and sustainable health sector and help the region to reduce its dependence on external funding. These sentiments were echoed by Dr. Simon Kibias, Head of the Directorate of Health Standards, Quality Assurance and Regulations, Kenya, in his keynote address. Dr. Kibias also emphasized the importance of building a resilient health sector and said it was important to reduce outward and regulate outward referrals for treatment abroad and enhance access and delivery of quality care within the region.
Healthcare systems globally will not be the same as they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. The disruption caused by the pandemic and the EA region’s renewed focus on attaining healthcare goals can help to catapult its ascendance in the medical tourism market. Building a medical tourism ecosystem will require all the actors in the system to work together towards developing the infrastructure, capacity and skill sets required for the region to become a hub that rivals other destinations. The EA Expo panel discussions revealed that although the dream of creating an East African Medical Tourism Hub is ambitious, it is feasible and worth exploring.