Dreaming big is how Kenyan doctor built her own private hospital

“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.

Dr Betty Gikonyo, CEO of The Karen Hospital

Dr Betty Gikonyo, CEO of The Karen Hospital

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.”