When hospitals become debtors’ prisons

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Hospitals should be places that improve well-being, where people feel safe and are free to leave at the end of their treatment. Sadly, this is often not always the case. In some parts of the world, people are detained for months for not being able to pay their medical bills or are refused care when they can no longer pay.

This practice is particularly prevalent in some sub-Saharan countries, but also occurs in Asian countries where there is poor access to affordable healthcare. Hospital detentions contravene several international laws and represent a gross violation of human rights, especially as many detainees suffer abuse during their enforced hospital stay.

In Kenya, hospital detentions have been receiving a lot of media coverage. Due to low levels of public health spending, many patients are charged high fees for their care, which leads some people to delay seeking treatment when unwell, while others amass high medical bills that they cannot afford. Hospitals are often faced with a decision of whether or not to provide life-saving care or not and having to find ways to recoup unpaid bills. Somtimes this results in detaining patients.

For example, in 2009, Kenyatta National Hospital was pressured into releasing 44 detained patients after a TV station used a hidden camera to show them being held in a padlocked room. More recently, in 2017, a grieving mother who had lost four children in an accident was detained in a Migori County Hospital, and in another case, the body of a 73-year-old woman was not released to her family for over a year.

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