Kenya: poverty & health

[photo at left: Traditional Birth Attendants being trained to do PMTCT for HIV+ pregnant women in Turbo Village. They represent an important piece of task-shifting to community-based members. They also represent a large cadre of people who are not trained in traditional university settings but who are doing great public health work. They reach women in their homes, saving them the cost of going to far-away clinics.]

Poverty and Health

Sickness and Wealth

Poverty and health status are inexorably linked. That goes without saying. We wrestle with this fact every day in clinic. You can’t ignore the blatant poverty that our patients struggle with, even if you tried to. It keeps you from doing your work as a health care provider. On the other hand, you can also see it as part of your work. I like to think of being a good health care provider as being an anti-poverty worker. You treat people so that they are healthy enough to work and take care of themselves. The problem lies in when people are too poor to pay for the treatment they need.

Chicken or egg? Chicken AND egg.

During my first week here, a 60 year old mama came in with a deep foot wound, one week old. The wound happened when she was digging through the dirt of her family farm and cut her foot on a piece of jagged glass in the ground (these types of traumas are common here, as there is lots of broken glass and metal in the earth). She came from a rural village about an hour away by matatu. She was widowed, not just once but twice – by her first husband and then by her husband’s brother (she was inherited as part of Luo tradition); they likely died from HIV and passed it along to her. She had to pay 100 shillings one-way to get to our clinic, which is the equivalent to her entire day’s income from selling milk from her small herd of cows. It took her two weeks to save enough money to cover the roundtrip to and from clinic. She didn’t come in when the wound occurred because she couldn’t afford it, so instead she went to a local tribal healer and got some herbs to make a poultice for it.

She looked like she was 80, she was so withered and thin. She was WHO Stage 3 for weight loss; we didn’t know her CD4 count yet. With her HIV infection, she is at risk for invasive infection from her wound. This is especially true since she’s been walking on it with little dressing… and only little broken cloth shoes and a rag protecting it. The wound was deep – I was able to see her subdermal layers and muscles sticking out- almost to the bone. Surprisingly, and probably thanks to her herbal poultice, the wound was clean, and I didn’t see anything overtly infected.

When I tried to refer her to the district hospital near her home to get a tetanus shot, dressings and wound care done, she refused. She said that she couldn’t afford their fees. While the public hospitals are supposed to be sliding scale, people won’t do anything for you unless you pay something, which pretty much amounts to a bribe. Public hospitals here are notorious for providing bad, shady care. I worked in one in Eldoret. I hated it. Patients at this hospital got terrible care, and I felt terrible that I couldn’t fix it for them. There were several deaths every day of young people who died of treatable infections. I cried every day from the seeming futility of in-patient work here.

I don’t blame the patients at all. I would avoid the hospitals too.

I couldn’t stand the fact that this mama was not going to get the care she needed because she didn’t have the 200 shillings to bribe someone at the district hospital. I would suture and dress the wound myself, but there were no supplies I could use. I know that this is no long-term solution, but I decided to give her the 200 shillings to cover the expense. So maybe it’ll help prevent her from getting infected and losing a leg.

Because of the poverty, people will defer evaluation and treatment as long as they can, in hopes that they will get better and avoid any additional financial burden. The other phenomenon is that avoid going to the hospital at all cost (pun intended). Our clinics provide free care. So when they are sick, no matter how sick they are, they come to our out-patient clinics, which are not equipped (AT ALL) to deal with such sick patients. Well, the fact is that the hospitals here are also not equipped, but that’s another story. They are supposed to be better equipped than our out-patient clinics. It is not terribly unlike what our uninsured patients do in the US, though in the US we have a safety net… and here, the poverty is far more extreme. The financial problem with the hospitals here is that they charge you for everything, and if you don’t pay, you are held hostage in the hospital until you pay something. The horrible irony is that you stay because you can’t pay, and as you stay your debt burden gets bigger and bigger. One of our FACES patients has been in the hospital for 10 days for simple diabetic control because she couldn’t pay for two days of hospitalization. It should have been just an overnight or few-hour admission.

While I was at the AMPATH Turbo Clinic with Joe Mamlin, two patients were brought in to the clinic completely unresponsive and sick as stink. In the US, they would have been coded and brought to the ICU right away. One was an older woman abandoned by her family and found sick by her neighbors. They called an ambulance to bring her to the clinic rather than the hospital, because they knew she had no money. Joe knows the patient a little and thinks she has TB meningitis. Another young man was brought in by neighbors… they weren’t even sure of his name, so no one could find his chart or figure out his medical history. He wouldn’t respond at all. He was septic- they couldn’t get a blood pressure and barely got a pulse. These are serious medical emergencies. And they were brought into the out-patient HIV clinic. And they had to wait 3 hours before getting transported to the provincial hospital because the “ambulance” which was called decided to take 3 hours to get some petrol (i.e. get sodas and snacks and take their time coming).

A couple of such folks come into FACES each week too. What we often admit to the hospital in the US, we manage as out-patients here in Kenya because people will adamantly refuse to go to the hospital. And for good reason. Amazingly, people will do OK with outpatient management, even with limited resources. This is largely in thanks to the great care that family members and neighbors will give to sick people. For example, in the three weeks I’ve been here, I’ve seen a bunch of patients that we diagnosed with rip-roaring pulmonary or extrapulmonary TB, severe hepatitis or biliary obstruction, bacteremia, toxoplasmosis leading to hemiparesis, severe malaria… all of which we have treated as out-patients, and most of whom have come back for diligent follow-up. If you can breathe, take your oral medications and drink a little, we try to treat you as an out-patient.

It’s great to see how good out-patient and community support can heal you. It’s more affordable, and often, it works.

Still, some people can’t even afford the few hundred shillings for an out-patient course of medications or treatments, like the 60 year old mama with the deep foot wound. We can’t keep on providing piecemeal doses of money to cover costs. Besides, the mzungus are at the clinic only sporadically. AMPATH tries to address this by providing a large network of waived fees subsidized by a large foundation and grants, along with income-generating programs. AMPATH is unique in how well-endowed, comprehensive and wide-ranging it is. FACES is not so. And the rest of Kenya (besides Nairobi) is even less so. Despite how much AMPATH is doing, Joe Mamlin still feels like his program is a failure.

Poverty feels like a gi-normous, insurmountable problem. It is pervasive in everything we do here.

I can’t even imagine agitating for universal health care in Kenya. The government seems too disorganized to entertain the idea. Kenya doesn’t have the leadership, vision or persistence that Cuba has. But it needs it. It needs more leaders who can use its precious few resources in creative, wide-reaching ways.

If you are a good health care provider here, you are an anti-poverty worker.