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Dreaming big is how Kenyan doctor built her own private hospital

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“I do not let the fact that I am a doctor limit what else I can be or do,” says Dr Betty Gikonyo. The CEO of The Karen Hospital, a leading Nairobi-based private hospital, has had an illustrious career in medicine and business A respected pediatric cardiologist and surgeon, Gikonyo grew up in rural Kenya, went to medical school in Nairobi and later pursued post-graduate training in the US. She tells How we made it in Africa that studying and practicing medicine gave her a “great foundation” to do many other things.

“Training as a doctor made me a better person in being able to take on difficult things, to stay awake for long hours and to accept mistakes because mistakes in medicine can be very costly. Going to medical school refined me and opened the world for me. I should see further, beyond the confines of medicine.”

A 20-year dream

In the 1980s, Gikonyo and her husband Dan, an adult cardiologist, had a vision of revolutionising healthcare services in Kenya. The couple had just returned from the US where they attained post-graduate training in cardiology and were confronted by the lack of equipment and general poor service in local hospitals.

The duo practiced at a leading local hospital as they strategised how to realise their dream of starting a hospital that would offer high quality services and affordable treatment. For 10 years the couple knocked on the door of every financier in the country hoping to get a loan. Gikonyo recalls that banks were not enthusiastic about lending money to “two doctors with no business background”.

“I cannot try to minimise how difficult it really was and how people were not always nice about it. In as much as people like to be courteous, there are some who would tell you straight to your face, ‘you are dreaming, the numbers you are running here are not viable’. They would use technical language like quasi-equity and I would just think ‘my goodness, this was not taught in medical school’,” says Gikonyo.

Despite being branded “too ambitious”, the couple held on to their plan.

“The ideas and the plans that we had were so deep-seated that you really could not uproot them. Even as we saw patients and met people we would tell them we are going to build a hospital. Every time we had an opportunity we talked about the hospital.”

In 2006, the couple’s 20-year dream came true when The Karen Hospital opened its doors to the public. The 102-bed hospital offers complex treatments including kidney transplants, cardiac surgeries, neurosurgery and dialysis for patients with chronic kidney problems.

The Karen Hospital has since increased its number of staff from 50 to 450, has opened six satellite clinics in emerging towns and started a nursing school.

“We have moved from providing tertiary care, which is the complex medical treatment that we carry out at The Karen Hospital, to taking care of everyday problems among rural populations. We have taken what we believe is the Karen brand, which is well positioned as a provider of quality medical care at affordable pricing, and taken it to other parts of the country.”
he hospital has also finished repaying its long-term debt and the supply credit which totalled more than KSh.700m (US$8m).

“We are now loan free. We have been able to get rid of that big load that was on our back. That is something we are very happy about. It is significant for us because debt is something that can keep you awake at night, although over time you learn that this is how all businesses run anyway.”

Looking ahead

Gikonyo says the hospital has embarked on its next five-year plan which includes expanding its education programme beyond nursing to include training doctors.

“From the very onset we thought about having a chain of hospitals but at the beginning it looked like a far-fetched dream. In the next five years we see ourselves operating five secondary level hospitals that will be scattered in different parts of Kenya and increase the number of satellite clinics from six to 30. Our goal from the beginning has been to take quality services at affordable prices to the people.”

Once again, the couple and their shareholders will be seeking financing, but they expect a different experience this time around.

“We are like a young girl who has several suitors. We have the luxury of choosing. It sounds arrogant but when you have five investors interested in coming in that is how it feels.” She says that until you have proved yourself, raising funds will always be difficult, “but once you have proved yourself then you get a lot of investors interested”.
Gikonyo pursued an executive MBA to get a better “understanding of the business world”, and as CEO has steered The Karen Hospital to new heights.

“Whatever it is you don’t know there is always somebody who knows it, or it is in a book or these days it is on the internet. Go there, find it, learn it,” she says, adding that she applies certain aspects of medical practice in her job as CEO.

“Medicine is a profession of discipline where one has to have attention to detail, consistency and tenacity. I approach life in that same, systematic way.”

Dreaming big

Last year Gikonyo released her autobiography, The Girl who Dared to Dream, which chronicles her life growing up in rural Kenya, losing her mother to cancer, going to medical school and realising her dream.

“I wanted to encourage boys and girls in the village to dream big because for me dreaming to become a doctor was a big deal.”

Gikonyo says she finds “greater gratification” in her charity, Heart to Heart Foundation, which organises the annual Heart to Heart Run to raise funds to help children with heart problems get treatment.

“As part of my work in the 1990s I would come across a lot of these children. I wanted to get community involved. Through the Heart Run about 500 children have had open-heart surgery and heart treatment.”

Gikonyo also uses the charity to create awareness about the prevention of heart diseases through workshops in schools and training of health workers.

She advises other entrepreneurs to have a never-say die attitude, especially during difficult times.

She explains that most people can become successful entrepreneurs but the “staying power is what lacks” in many because they listen to, and believe the naysayers.

“You must have the spirit of persistence. You must believe that one day your dream will become possible no matter how long it takes.”

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