The Kenyan health system has been on an uneven footing for decades with the general inaccessibility and unaffordability of health services for the majority of Kenyans. Tech-based health solutions driven by home-grown health tech start-ups are confronting these issues. But they’re also having to dismantle the commonly known and prevalent lack of trust for health practitioners by everyday Kenyans. Creating access, making health services affordable and building trust are just some of the challenges health start-ups are addressing today. How is this happening?
Trust. It’s the vital ingredient in almost every successful relationship. Romantic partnerships, friendships, and even business relationships all hinge on trust. The same is true on a much bigger societal level. Take healthcare, for example. An effective healthcare system is one where people trust that their doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and administrators will meet their medicinal needs. Critically, it’s also one where they know that they’ll be treated with dignity and empathy.
Unfortunately, that trust hasn’t always been evident in Kenyan healthcare. While the country’s healthcare system performs better on trust than other big regional players on the continent (according to Statista), it’s some way below global leaders like China and the UAE. That shouldn’t be all that surprising. Many Kenyans travel long distances and wait in long queues to access healthcare. Sometimes they might not even receive a consultation and have to return the next day.
Of course, technology can and will play a significant role in addressing that trust deficit. Whether it’s finding new ways to make the overall healthcare system more efficient or allowing for a more personalised patient experience, it’s already making an impact and will only grow in importance. But for tech to reach its full healthcare potential, it will have to overcome its trust barriers.
A Stretched System
Before looking at how technology can build up that trust, it’s worth providing a broader overview of the Kenyan healthcare system. As is the case in many countries, healthcare in Kenya is divided into public and private sectors. Public healthcare is funded through a combination of government budget allocations and the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF), which provides health insurance coverage to Kenyan citizens. Private healthcare, meanwhile, is funded by patient health insurance and out-of-pocket payments.
The split is far from even though. A report released in 2021 revealed that just 20 per cent of Kenyans have any form of health insurance. That means that the public system has to cater to the vast majority of the population. But healthcare worker resources aren’t split evenly between the two sectors. According to government research released in 2022, 66 per cent of Kenyan healthcare workers serve the public sector. That leaves 34 per cent serving that 20 per cent or so who can afford private healthcare.
Irrespective of which sector, there’s also a clear shortage of healthcare professionals in the country. There are approximately 30.14 doctors, nurses, and clinical officers per 10 000 people. That represents about 68 per cent of the United Nations’ SDG index threshold of 44.5 doctors, nurses and midwives per 10 000 people. Small wonder then that, with such a stretched system, so many Kenyans face long queues and wait times that erode trust.
Learning To Trust Tech
That’s where technology has an important role to play. It can help more people access healthcare more efficiently and in ways that offer significantly better experiences than what has historically been available. But in order for it to play that role, trust is critical. We’ve seen this first-hand as we’ve built and grown TIBU Health. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we focused on doing at-home tests, reducing the need for people to expose themselves to potentially risky clinic settings. Later, we did the same thing with vaccines. That then expanded to sample collections for laboratory tests. Incrementally doing one thing effectively at a time built up trust and meant that we were able to offer a growing array of services.
But as we further expand our offerings into home clinician visits and video and voice-based telehealth services, we know that this form of trust-building might not be enough for some people. That’s part of the reason why we built a physical clinic that people can visit. The more comfortable patients get with our healthcare professionals in person, the more comfortable they’ll be dealing with them virtually.
Similar efforts will be needed to get Kenyans to embrace digital healthcare across the board. While there was an uptick in the use of digital health services during the pandemic, it still lags some way behind other digital services such as mobile money. There are a number of reasons for that slower shift, including the fact that healthcare is a deeply personal, and occasionally, sensitive thing for all of us. Factor in how entrenched the habits of physically going to a doctor, pharmacy, or clinic are and it’s easy to see why digital healthcare might lag behind.
Ultimately, those are issues that will have to be addressed. And the sooner they are, the better. Technology will prove crucial in making Kenyan healthcare more efficient and capable of meeting the needs of more people. That, in turn, helps build up trust and investment. But technology can only play that role if people trust it first.
This article was written by Peter Gikera Gicharu, Co-Founder & CTO, Tibu Health