The first surgery enabled by remote video technology in Kenya will be performed on Thursday at the Aga Khan University Hospital.
The Nairobi-based surgeons will use Video Conference Surgery (VCS) technology to operate on patients under the guidance of specialists sitting in India, saving on costs associated with quality treatment abroad such as air tickets and accommodation. (READ: Pain of treatment deepens with rise in medical fees )
Doctors said the technology could significantly reduce the cost of specialised treatment and enhance Kenya’s status as a medical tourism destination.
“This mode of treatment is being used in many developed countries since it obviates the need for doctors traversing continents to offer treatment,” said Jose Banda, the executive director of the Kenya Kidney and Lupus Foundation.
VCS allows surgeons to oversee operations either through controlling robotic machines or by teleconference liaison with supervising doctors in the operating room.
Internet provider Access Kenya and Asterisk and Sight & Sound will be providing the broadband service.
VCS procedures are highly dependent on a reliable and high capacity bandwidth because precision is key to the success of any operation. Besides giving patients access to faster treatment, the technology will help claw back on revenue that was previously going abroad.
“Furthermore patients can access up-to-date treatment from particular specialists lacking in their country and therefore enjoy better recuperation without the hassles of boarding aeroplanes,” Mrs Banda.
The number of patients seeking surgery in India, for instance, is expected to reach 50,000 this year compared to half that number last year.
Some of the most common ailments that have for years precipitated an exodus of patients to Asia and Europe include neurological disorders, brain surgery, open heart surgeries and orthopedic-related ailments.
Recent data indicates that Kenya requires 24,000 doctors but only has 7,000, with 3,000 of them working in public hospitals and 4,000 in private ones. Brain drain has taken another 1,000 to greener pastures abroad.
The capacity gap to meet the demand for services has seen many seek treatment abroad, their choice dictated by waiting lists, some of which stretch several months before surgery can be performed.
“We have for years referred our patients to other countries for critical operations because the doctors there have been practising the procedures for much longer than our own,” said Mr Peter Nduati, the chief executive of Resolution Health East Africa, a medical insurer.
It is now common to get invited to fundraisers of relatives or friends collecting money to send their ailing patients abroad with the cost of the treatment running into millions of shillings.
Mr Nduati, however, cautions that the cost of having procedures done in local hospitals which embrace the technology needs to be low enough for VCS to have an impact.
“Hospitals embracing this technology should keep the charges affordable to stop the exodus especially to India where the cost is ten times less than in Kenya for some ailments,” he said.
VCS comes a month after the Aga Khan University Hospital unveiled a Sh4.25 billion heart and cancer centre meant to tap into the number of patients from Kenya and the region who travel abroad for treatment.
Top hospitals in the country have in the past four months increased their charges by up to 40 per cent leaving medical insurance providers contemplating to effect premium changes to reverse underwriting losses.
Remote provision of healthcare is gaining pace in the country with mobile providers Safaricom and Telkom Kenya said to be exploring different innovations.
Health Presence, being fronted by Safaricom, is expected to be situated at the digital villages it is currently building from where patients will consult their doctors through teleconferencing.