We've a lot to offer in health, Israeli ambassador tells Kenya

His country ranks sixth in the World Index of Healthcare Innovation, and first in Asia.

In Summary
  • He now plans to expand working with Kenya beyond the traditional areas of agriculture, moving to health.
  • Lotem is Israel’s ambassador to Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Seychelles.

Bring the knowledge here! 

This is what Israeli ambassador Michael Lotem says when the Star asks if he plans to promote medical tourism to Israel.  His country ranks sixth in the World Index of Healthcare Innovation, and first in Asia, according to one think tank. He now plans to expand working with Kenya beyond the traditional areas of agriculture, moving to health. Lotem is Israel’s ambassador to Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Seychelles.

He spoke with the Star’s JOHN MUCHANGI:

 I understand you came to Nairobi in December. So tell us more about your diplomatic journey.

I started my diplomatic journey actually in Africa in Swaziland back in 1993. Then life took me to other places. So most of the last 20 years I spent in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe. I was ambassador in Romania, Vienna, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and consul general in St Petersburg, Russia. Then in between, of course, I spent some time in Israel. I really wanted to come back to Africa, since I don't like heat and humidity, but there were not too many options on the table. And I'm glad that I could grab the option for Nairobi, which is an important posting for us. Kenya is an important country for Israel.

What's going to be your focus? Previous ambassadors were more focused on the agri-tech industry.

And I tried to avoid the usual mistakes that visitors, guests,and diplomats do and come with a prepared agenda. The only prepared agenda I have is that I know pretty well the Israeli society, the Israeli industry, Israeli academia, the Israeli health system and, of course, the government.

So I'm coming armed with this knowledge. And I want to hear what the locals want because I'm demand-driven. I don't think it should work in any other way. Because I found out in different places, of course, people are very nice and polite, they will never say no, but then you keep on pushing, and you find out that it's a wall and it would be difficult to move a wall. So better to listen to the people, to the government, to private sector and follow this line.

I understand you particularly have an interest in healthcare.

The nice thing about health is that it touches all aspects of life and diplomacy. It starts with the kid that needs medical assistance.

And then you have the medical research, which in Israel of course is very developed.You have the pharmaceutical, you have the technology from the simplest to the most sophisticated systems. Then you have the government. Of course, it is difficult to do many things in health without the government. You have the insurance, you have finance,you have even the PR that you do good and people see that you do good. So you have everything and at the end of the day, you go back to sleep at home base very satisfied that something happened.

Not to say that agriculture is less important or industry is less important. But when you stand in front of the bed of an 18-year-old child with leukemia, it's another feeling. And I know there are many needs here that can be answered by Israelis in all dimensions. And, again, not only government, but also private.

The healthcare system in Kenya is 50 per cent public and 50 per cent private and we are seeing huge growth in the private sector.How is the system organised in Israel?

Every employee is by law insured by national insurance. So we pay about 5.6 per cent of our salary to the insurance. And then you can top it through HMOs. We have four big HMOs (health medical organization). HMO is both an insurance but also supplies medical services.

The largest has about five and half million insured people under its wings and has 16 hospitals.

So you pay to the HMO, but you also go and get the services from them.

Israelis, probably all Jews, also have other private insurance on top, even I had, but I stopped it. It's ridiculous, it’s Jewish paranoia. Of course, it's a waste of money at the end of the day, because if you take the basic policy, it covers almost everything.

And now that you top it with a small sum of money, then you're insured for the most dramatic cases, operations abroad and so on. But basically, you get everything today with the basic coverage.

What opportunities in healthcare are there for Kenya and Israel, such as telemedicine or medical tourism?

I'll tell you about telemedicine. I think one should be very careful when using it because it's like an innovation or startup. Some use it in a basic way, like take an X-ray, put it online, then someone in Israel looks at the same picture and will tells me what he sees.

So I think on monitoring and diagnostics, we can certainly do business here. The problem on this is financing. You have the advantage of scale and young society. Israel is a very small society with a small population.

The leading Israeli inventions were not applied first in Israel, because the market is too small, so we go abroad.

So on telemedicine, yes. In anything in medicine, some can be vis-a-vis the government, some vis-a-vis the private sector.

We previously had a cardiology programme where some patients from Kenya would be taken to Israel.

My idea is not to take patients to Israel. Bring the knowledge here. You will not solve the problem if you take people to Israel.  Bring the knowledge here. Some people say it's the life we’re saving. It's, of course, but the picture is much, much larger.

Because if you train people, there's more spillover benefits in technology, in clinical research, in everything.

If an Israeli company comes here and starts something and employs 100 people, in two years time 10 per cent of the employees will say thank you very much. We go and open up our own business; you already have an expansion of the knowledge.

So I believe I believe in bringing knowledge here, not in medical tourism. It's nice to the Israeli hospitals to make money out of it (medical tourism). But I don't think it will take you very far.

What do you envision by the end of your tenure in health?

If we manage to create cooperation that will launch the beginning of a process of bone marrow transplant here in Kenya,that will be an achievement. Because not everybody has between $60,000 and $160,000 to go abroad, sometimes it gets up to 1 million.

We can also do something with other organisations in training the clinical officers in better diagnostics, because you can have the best equipment and the best doctors in Nairobi, and fail to do much.

WATCH: The latest videos from the Star