As a little girl, Ruth Kamau always desired to be a lawyer or the first woman president of Kenya. Sadly, the dreams were cut short when she did not make the cut to join the university and she opted to study for a Diploma in Law with an aim of qualifying for a degree programme. Working for two years thereafter in a medical travel company opened her eyes to the plight of Kenyans seeking treatment abroad and when later on the company folded up in 2016, she started her company, Beyond Borders Medical Tour to offer patients quality, specialised, timely and affordable medical care either locally or internationally.
“I could see the frustration of patients because of the limited choice of hospitals we offered back then. Later when the company folded up, I decided to continue with the business alone. I went on a business trip to India and visited various hospitals in New Delhi, Ahmadabad and Mumbai to research on the various hospital options that patients could have,” she says.
With the high cost of treating chronic diseases such as cancer and other medical procedures such as transplant surgery, joint replacement as well as dental surgery, travelling abroad has been the preferred option for most Kenyans. Looking for the best medical healthcare as well as securing a visa to these countries can be a tedious process.
Since the 1990s, India, a country that has been feted globally for being the leader in “medical tourism”, describes the term as the travel of persons from their country of residence to another to obtain affordable medical treatment. Medical tourism industry has been growing at a rapid rate as a result of increasingly developed medical facilities and requirements that have in turn resulted in cost-effective treatment and healthcare.
Currently, the sub-Saharan Africa faces a severe shortage of healthcare professionals as well as inadequate healthcare coverage for those requiring medical treatment.
Armed with roughly Sh800,000, which took care of the monthlong visit to India, company registration, website design, rent and a bit of online advertising, Ruth began her entrepreneurship journey. She settled for the name, Beyond Borders Medical Tours since her company is involved in both inbound and outbound tourism.
“I chose the name because we facilitate patients to travel beyond Kenyan borders. We also offer services to patients from East African nations such as Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania and South Sudan,” she says.
Ruth began with a staff of three, but now has four employees who assist her to connect patients to local and international hospitals. In addition, she holds monthly medical camps in at least three countries, mainly for cancer and orthopaedic treatment with visiting medical consultants from various countries. And while the business is doing well now, she admits to have faced quite a number of challenges while starting it.
“I have faced a number of challenges in the business such as hostilities and misconceptions about medical tourism by some players in the health sector. In addition, losing patients because of late diagnosis, since Kenyans generally seek medical treatment when it is too late. My aim is to raise awareness on the need for early screening, going for routine health check-ups (so that illnesses are identified and dealt with in their early stages) as well as the need for eating healthy and exercising regularly,” she says.
Getting assistance is quite simple. Once a patient contacts them, they are requested to submit their medical records so that they can have the information on the medical condition, appropriate mode of treatment, estimated cost as well as any other information that will assist in designing the health package for them. Popular destinations include India, Israel, Turkey, Thailand, Mexico, Brazil, Malaysia, and South Africa.
The process varies from country to country as the charges and requirements differ.
Once the patient returns to Kenya, a follow-up is done to check on their progress with monthly reviews from visiting medical experts. They also provide assistance on home-based or palliative care.
“So far, we have assisted 35 patients to travel abroad for treatment. We have, however, facilitated hundreds of patients both from Kenya and East Africa to get treated locally by visiting specialists mainly from India and Israel through monthly medical camps. In normal cases, they would have had to travel abroad to access such services,” she says.
Despite the fact that her dreams for being the first female president in Kenya is under the bridge now, she is glad that she has managed to achieve what she has now and she has a word of encouragement for upcoming entrepreneurs.
“Embrace technology, network and read widely. When faced by an obstacle, don’t be cowed, but innovate,” she advises.