Five years ago, reports of people masquerading as doctors were common in Kenya. It became so 'normal' that such stories either never made it into the media or if they did, they appeared as briefs in the newspapers and never made a blip on radio or television.
Today, that situation has dramatically changed. It is not that quacks or daktari bandia (Kiswahili for 'fake doctor') have gone the way of the dinosaur. There are still cases where unqualified people try to pass themselves off as doctors. Last September, in a case so awful that it was widely reported, a man pretending to be a gynecologist was arrested for drugging and sexually assaulting his female patients.
But today, it is easy for anyone to check whether or not the 'doctor' is real or a fake. With Dodgy Doctors, any patient, while waiting in the doctor's office, can check whether the person he or she is waiting to see is registered. For the cost of a single SMS, a user can determine the doctor's authenticity. They can send another SMS to confirm whether or not a hospital or health facility is covered by the National Health Insurance. Another SMS will confirm if the health facility is licensed.
Since it was developed in 2013 by Code for Africa technicians in partnership with The Star, use of the Dodgy Doctors tool has grown tenfold from an average 20 SMS requests daily to an average of 215. When stories are broken about fake doctors or questionable conduct by those in the health professions, the number of people using the tool spikes even higher. For example, within hours of the fake gynecologist story being broken, people rushed to the Dodgy Doctors platform to check on doctors. The number of SMS requests rose from 30 to 720 within the space of two days.
"We are excited that more and more people are using [Dodgy Doctors]," says Joseph Kariuki, digital content editor at The Star. "We have seen the numbers grow, and resources have been allocated to market the tool all over the country. It’s not something that only works for those in the cities; it is something that everyone can use."
The newspaper invested additional resources for a public awareness campaign that has generated increased interest in the Star Health pages where Dodgy Doctors can be found. The ChungaDaktariBandia (Beware of fake doctors) campaign has been running on radio, television, social media and print products. It has contributed to a 15 to 20 percent increase in traffic to the Star Health pages. The campaign has also led to an increase in the number of people using the tool. In February, 7,120 users sent 6,000 SMS requests.
The success of Dodgy Doctors has also contributed to a change in government policy. On February 19, the government issued a communiqué directing all boards and associations responsible for the registration of medical health practitioners to set up their own SMS services to enable the public to identify their members.
"To enhance consumer protection, the Kenya Medical Practitioners Board and the Pharmacy and Poisons Board will come up with an SMS code that will enable the public to know whether their health care service providers are duly registered," the communiqué says in part.
The directive is among a 12-point rapid results initiative that the government launched to improve health service provision over 100 days. It applies to boards and councils responsible for the registration of pharmacists, laboratory technologists and clinical officers. A week before the communiqué was issued by the Health Committee of the National Assembly and the Health Ministry, the Kenya Medical Doctors and Practitioners Board made it mandatory for all doctors to wear photo IDs when attending patients.
Kenya's acute doctor shortage creates an ample opening for quacks to operate. With only 11,500 doctors to serve a population of 44 million, it's no wonder that there are some people who see this as a chance for self-enrichment. Many public health care facilities are far from home, congested, ill-equipped and sometimes lacking medicines. Sick Kenyans are forced to turn to the person nearest to them who claims to be knowledgeable, sometimes with deadly results.
The Dodgy Doctors tool may not address all the issues surrounding the provision of quality health care. But it at least removes from the equation the hopelessness and helplessness that citizens feel when it comes to confirming the authenticity of their health care providers. And since doctors have to renew their registration every year if they want to continue practicing legally, the tool has made it imperative for them to keep their status up-to-date.
This post is also published on IJNet, which is produced by ICFJ.
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Adrian Clark.