‘Coronaphobia’ drives patients from hospitals

Tuesday, April 28th, 2020 00:00 |
Deserted Coast Provincial General Hospital in Mombasa. Most Kenyans are shunning hospitals for fear on contracting coronavirus. PD/NDEGWA GATHUNGU

As the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise, Kenyans suffering from other ailments are apparently steering clear of hospitals for fear of contracting the deadly disease.

The decision by the sick to shun medical facilities has left many private hospitals across the country in a precarious position because many depend on patient fees for their survival.

Indeed, many of the private hospitals have been left asking; where are the patients,? as they stare at the empty wards.

There are now genuine fears that some of the hospitals could close shop if the Covid-19 pandemic continues. 

Dr. Catherine Nyongesa of Texas Cancer Centre in Nairobi, says the number of patients had reduced by almost 30 per cent since the first case of the virus was reported in the country.

“If people are avoiding hospitals out of fear, it could have long-lasting public health consequences.

I have never witnessed a disease that has caused such profound fear among people in my long time of practice,” Nyongesa, also a consultant oncologist at the Kenyatta National Hospital, said yesterday.

The doctor said many patients were scared of going to hospitals, even for doctors’ appointments, fearing they could get infected by coronavirus while others say they might inadvertently be declared Covid-19 positive and subsequently subjected to mandatory quarantine.

According to Nyongesa, many hospitals are now worried that if the pandemic continues, their businesses could crumble.

And the problem is not consigned to private hospitals, with many government health facilities experiencing a similar trend after medical authorities issued a circular instructing doctors to release patients who were not “seriously sick” to create room for Covid-19 cases.

Physicians and medical practitioners across the country are now worried that patients with severe illnesses may suffer permanent damage by avoiding hospitals due to the coronavirus phobia.

“The big question is whether we are going to see a lot more people that have bad outcomes from life threatening diseases such as heart diseases, from stroke, cancer because they’ve put off what they should have had done,” said Nyongesa.

“I am seeing people who don’t want to go to the emergency room. I just think there’s an overall fear right now of going near urgent care centres and emergency rooms because that’s where people with a cough and fever will go.” 

It also emerged that many Kenyans were resorting to self-medication, with some running to pharmacies or using herbal medicines while others are enduring the pain at home.

The Kenya Association of Private Hospitals (KAPH) confirmed yesterday that many people were not seeking treatment because of fear of contracting Covid-19.

“The number of sick people seeking services in private hospitals has gone down. This short term measure has serious financial implications on the facilities,” said KAPH secretary general, Dr Timothy Olweny.

Health experts say failure to seek treatment could jeopardise survival rates and potentially cause long-term damage to non-coronavirus patients.

It could also hurt the fight against chronic diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV/Aids, among others.

The worried hospital directors have written to the government, the  National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF), insurance companies and other third party organisations partnering with them to release pending payments.

“There is general agreement that these funds should be released immediately to the private facilities. This will help the facilities to remain afloat during this difficult period,” Dr. Olweny said.

To illustrate the seriousness of the crisis, KAPH officials will today meet the NHIF management over delayed payments for services rendered.

Olweny said NHIF owes millions of shillings to private hospitals, which has not been cleared for some time.

He, however, could not disclose the amount the private health facilities are demanding from the national health insurer.

Dr Olweny, who runs Evans Sunrise Hospital in Nakuru, disclosed that insurance companies are no longer covering elective procedures, saying patients visiting have had a hard time understanding the new regulation. 

The doctor observed that the “stay home” precaution is also keeping many people away from health facilities.”

“Unless one is very sick, many people are heeding the government guidelines not to leave their houses,” he said. 

“Hospitals need to pay salaries and other expenses. This stay at home guideline has negative effects on businesses including hospitals.” 

The Ministry of Health had projected that the country could record 1,000 cases of the virus in the first week of April.

However, Kenya had reported 363 Covid-19 positive cases by yesterday. Last month, acting Health Director General Patrick Amoth said the cases could hit 10,000 by the end of April.

Dr John Chamia, the director of Jocham Hospital, Mombasa, said the facility had lost between 30 to 40 per cent of walk in patients.

He said the next two months could prove a “very difficult moment” for hospitals due to financial stress.

“Walk-in patients with mild illnesses are not coming to hospital anymore; they are resorting to self medication and this is sometimes very dangerous in case of misdiagnosis,” said Chamia.

Only serious cases were being presented in hospital, he noted.

“We’re possibly going to see a blip in other disease entities as a consequence of doubling down on Covid-19,” he said, adding that it will take years to fully understand the consequences.

Chamia said despite the drop in revenue, the hospital has not sent any of its employees home. However, he says the situation is not guaranteed if the drop in number of patients continues.

He noted that hospitals were also struggling with the Covid-19 stigma as some are being shunned by patients once a case is reported.

“If you get a Covid-19 patient, it’s very expensive because of the stigma you will have lot of bad debts,” he said.

Dr Fardosa Ahmed, the chief executive of Premier Hospital in Nyali, Mombasa, says outpatients and inpatient cases had dropped drastically.

“This problem cuts across all hospitals; most people have become paranoid of hospitals,” she said.

Hospitals have to become more innovative so as to remain afloat, she observed.

“In our case, we have started home delivery services where we are taking lab and pharmaceutical services to the people. We are also offering tele-health services to our clients,” she said.  Reporting by Murimi Mutiga,  Winstone Chiseremi and Roy Lumbe

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