Health & Fitness

Cancer specialist sets sights on low-cost care

Dr Catherine Nyongesa explains how the LINAC
Dr Catherine Nyongesa explains how the LINAC radiotherapy machine works at Texas Cancer Centre. PHOTO | SARAH OOKO. 

As an oncologist at Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) Catherine Nyongesa knows the suffering that cancer patients go through waiting for between six months to a year for treatment.

Despite being the national referral hospital, KNH has only two radiotherapy machines — the only ones in the entire public health sector.

Only a few can afford services in private health facilities. This state of affairs prompted Dr Nyongesa to establish the Texas Cancer Centre (TCC) in 2010 to provide low-cost treatment.

“I got tired of complaining and sending patients away. I decided to be part of the solution and contribute to cancer care and treatment in my own little way,” she told the Business Daily at TCC.

Even though it opened its doors in 2010, little was known about the facility until late 2012 when it came to the limelight following media reports that the late politician Martin Shikuku was being treated there.

Due to its foreign name — Texas— many Kenyans may view it as foreign and maybe out of reach. But the name was picked at random, the oncologist said.

“Since the other co-founder as well as director of TCC is based in Texas, we decided to use the name when we were setting up the centre,” she says.

Coincidentally, Texas is the home of one of the largest and respected cancer centres worldwide known as University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Centre. The centre inspires her.

“We want to reach more ordinary Kenyans with affordable cancer treatment,” she says.

The facility that now handles close to 150 cancer patients daily up from 50, began as a nursing home offering basic care for pain alleviation.

By 2012, TCC started offering laboratory, out-patient and inpatient services. However, the only treatment offered back then was chemotherapy, the use drugs to destroy cancer cells.

Dr Nyongesa and her partner-husband secured a Sh100 million bank loan to grow the centre and offer quality comprehensive cancer care and treatment to Kenyans. They also used the cash to expand the facility.

TCC main offices are now located on Mbagathi Way where they offer outpatient services. The Hurligham clinic offers inpatient services only.

The centre has a Linac radiotherapy machine, one of the latest in the market, which runs procedures for as short as 15 minutes, compared to 30 minutes it would take at KNH. The business is planning to acquire another machine by mid this year, she said.

Without revealing the actual figures, she said TCC was focusing on offering cancer treatment “to vulnerable patients” and charges about 50 per cent lower than the prevailing rates in other private hospitals.

The TCC also has a programme of vetting patients based on their social history. “Very needy patients are heavily subsidised as others pay slightly more.”

She says they have been able to bring the cost down “by waiving professional charges to make services more affordable to the poor.”

Dr Nyongesa, who is one of only four radiation oncologists in Kenya is also the only woman with that speciality.

One of the challenges, she says, is attracting and retaining skilled employees while keeping the costs affordable. TCC has over 70 employees up from 10 when the centre was established.

The minimal medical costs are attracting patients, enabling TCC to generate profit and offer quality services. Apart from treatment, TCC has adopted a holistic approach that addresses external factors that may compromise procedures.

For instance, Dr Nyongesa explains, they are keen on diet. For this reason, TCC prepares breakfast and lunch for patients from poor backgrounds depending on the time they come to the facility for either radiotherapy or chemotherapy.

“It makes them strong,” she told the Business Daily.

For patients living outside Nairobi, the facility offers hostels at Sh1,000 daily which covers all meals and an ambulance transport to and from the clinic that has a counsellor and nutritionist, which services speed up recovery of patients.

Apart from her, TCC has an in-house oncologist and also has a team of external cancer specialists who are consulted for special procedures such as surgery.