Medical tourism in West Africa

On March 18, 2009, in Ghana, health care, quality, by Karen Grepin

Breakfast at my delightful 20$-a night guesthouse in Accra is the same every day: two slices of white bread, margarine, a spoonful of marmalade, and two packs of Ivoirian instant Nescafe coffee. Normally I eat alone, however, for the past two days I have been joined by Paul, a Methodist Pastor from Sierra Leone. Paul, a slight and wiry soft-spoken man, is a medical tourist here in Ghana.

A few years back, while lifting a heavy object, Paul injured his back leaving him with chronic pain in his neck and back. Over the years Paul visited a series of doctors in his home country, even paying for an expensive x-ray at a private clinic, but Paul was not able to find a physician able to diagnose and treat his condition. Nothing seemed to work.

Well off enough to afford some options, but not rich enough to go to Europe, through his network of colleagues here in Ghana and clearly at great financial expense to himself, Paul flew from Sierra Leone to Ghana last week to seek care from neurological specialists at the Korle-Bu Hospital here in Accra, hoping for a cure. Every day he goes in for a series of tests, building up to the visit with the neurologist this Thursday. His finances are stretched so thin that he hopes to be able to return as early as Friday, otherwise he is here for a least a few more days due to the flight schedules.

He has no idea how much he will eventually have to pay for his diagnosis and treatment here, so far he has only had to pay out of pocket for a cat scan, which cost him about $300 USD. The medical fees, additional diagnostic tests, flights, and accommodation will cost him many multiples of that figure.

I greatly admire Paul for taking it upon himself to make these arrangements and for having such faith in the ability of modern medicine to help him out. Although I am worried that he will be disappointed. It is not even clear that if he receives a diagnosis this week that he will even be able to benefit from treatment.

But his story struck me on many levels. It is hard to imagine Ghana being a hotspot for medical tourism, but I guess everything is relative. I think it also speaks to an emerging literature in development economics and health that suggests that even people in very poor settings can be very savy health care consumers and are willing to pay more for what they perceive to be quality. I wish I knew more about how prevalent this practice is in Africa.

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