Medical tourism: Why Nigerians should emulate Osinbajo

Prof. Yemi Osinbajo

The vice-president, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, did what no public officer in his capacity had ever done as far as Nigerians can remember; a step worth celebrating as ELEOJO IDACHABA reports.

Nigerians love anything ‘foreign’ not minding the cost implications. This taste ranges from unbridled quest for exotic cars to using communication accessories/mobile phones, education abroad, foreign attire/suites and music; the list is endless. In a nutshell, it is seen as a status symbol.

Added to this is the unquenchable thirst for medical tourism in which many Nigerians move in droves to overseas countries to seek remedy for ailments that can ordinarily be treated even at the level of primary healthcare in the country.

Of late, this phenomenon has become so embarrassing to the image of the country because of the foreign exchange cost implication required to embark on such trips at the expense of the local currency whose value had been on a downward trend lately.

On this note, it may be instructive to assert that the current travail former Senate president, Ike Ekweremadu, is going through in a UK detention facility over his choice of a London hospital for the child’s kidney transplant would ordinarily have been avoided if this unquenchable thirst for anything ‘foreign’ had been curtailed long ago. This is because in Nigeria today, there are many medical facilities that can perform an ordinary successful kidney transplant rather than patronising a UK hospital where investigation has shown that 20 percent of the medical practitioners in those countries are Nigerians.

That is why the bold step taken recently by the vice-president, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, to seek medical attention for his injured knees in a private hospital in Lagos has attracted a lot of commendations and is worthy of emulation.

By this action, Osinbajo proved that in many ramifications, hospitals in Nigeria and their practitioners are as good as other hospitals and their colleagues anywhere in the world. His step jettisoned the common, but unpopular elitist game of seeking medical tourism abroad.

The successful surgery also goes to show that rather than waste public funds on medical tourism which in its entirety is ego-boosting, local hospitals can actually handle some of those ailments. This is bearing in mind the humongous amount appropriated for the secondary, tertiary, specialised and teaching hospitals across the country annually.

Lamenting on this sheer absurdity, the governor, Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Mr. Godwin Emefiele, noted recently that, “Medical and education tourism combined drains $10 billion from the country annually.” If this is not a concern to anyone, what else could be!

Aside from Senator Ekweremadu who is experiencing what can be likened to the proverbial experimental guinea pig, having spent days in detention abroad, other prominent politicians, especially presidential aspirants, also shun treatments in the country, but shuttles abroad for medical attention as if they are travelling to their backyards.

Willingness for genuine change

Olatunde Ige, a specialist on health insurance, noted that rich Nigerians are not willing to make things work in the country’s medical infrastructure. “The appalling thing is that in almost every country in the world where these rich people and politicians travel to, medical experts from Nigeria are largely in charge of those hospitals. They simply do not want a perfect environment where everything works so that there would be justification for their frequent shuttle abroad,” he told Blueprint Weekend.

NMA, PSN’s lamentations

Medical tourism constitutes a colossal financial drain on the country’s finances for which the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) corroborated the views of Emefiele when they said a whopping sum of $1billion is spent on it annually.

According to the NMA, for reasons known to everyone in Nigeria, only 40,000 of the 80,000 medical doctors registered with the Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria (MDCN) practise locally while the others work outside the country where privileged Nigerians go for medical tourism.

Also, the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN) in the year 2019 disclosed that 5,000 of the registered 30,000 pharmacists in the country work abroad. This is, however, not a surprise as most public health institutions remain in dilapidated state with poor equipment and unattractive remunerations.

Leadership by example

Responding to Osinbajo’s example, a medical doctor, Dr. Tochukwu Moghalu, said in opting for local medical care, the vice-president has brushed aside every wrong counsel from several quarters for him to travel outside the country as it is the tradition of most public office holders in his position whenever they take ill.

“Nigeria’s insensitive and self-indulgent political class, exemplified by major players in the current administration should borrow a leaf from Prof Osinbajo who despite his entitlement looked the other way to show that given the enabling environment, any wonder other countries can do in the world of medicines, Nigeria can do better. This is what is lacking in many privileged public servants,” he said.

He said further that the action saved the country from using the scarce foreign exchange for his treatment abroad when ordinarily no one would blink an eye in view of his position as the number two citizen who has not been noted to junket on such frivolities in the past.

Private hospitals

According to Dr. Essiet Asuquo of Ryne Hospital Ilupeju in Lagos, medical tourism has become a status symbol for many who can afford the luxury of travelling abroad. Otherwise there are a lot of investments in private hospitals that ordinarily should discourage the quest for medical attention overseas.

“It would interest you to know that a lot of the private hospitals in the country are well equipped to handle many major and minor ailments because their concepts are drawn from overseas. Even in the hospital where the vice president was treated, the concept was drawn from abroad and the official commissioning was done by Osinbajo himself. Do you think such a centre does not have facilities to handle ailments such as kidney transplant, cancer and any deadly disease? Politicians and government officials simply chose to shun what we have in the country. That is why they pay lip service to upgrading infrastructure,” he said.

Playing politics with health

Apart from a few states in the country, most of the frontline states boast of robust medical centres. Investigation shows that whenever governors of such states have any opportunity to showcase their scorecards, they are quick to flaunt their lofty investments in health. Surprisingly, however, whenever any of them or their relatives needs medical attention, they prefer overseas hospitals. For instance, in Akwa Ibom state, the immediate past governor, now a chieftain of the All Progressive Congress (APC), Godswill Akpabio, conceptualised an ultra-modern medical centre code-named 20th Century Hospital in Uyo.

This reporter could recall the humongous amount spent on the project which cost the people of Akwa Ibom billions of Naira. It was to be, according to that administration, the best referral centre in the country. Amazingly, nearly eight years after that administration left office, the indigenes now wonder whether or not they were hypnotised to have believed what the Akpabio administration told them. In a reaction, Daniel Udoh, an indigene who resides in Abuja, said even the Akpabio administration knew that the project would end up as one of those while elephant projects in the country.

He said, “Remember that the Akpabio government told everyone that he was ending medical tourism in Nigeria with that hospital, but shortly after he left the Government House in Uyo and moved to Abuja, he was involved in an accident near Bolingo Hotel. For a minor accident that would have been treated at the National Hospital, was he not flown abroad? Why didn’t he go to the ultra-modern referral hospital he built in Uyo but flew straight to treat himself abroad? They know that whenever they want to deceive ordinary people, they come up with projects they cannot actualise. If the project was conceived with genuine intention, why has it not been completed since then?”

In all of these, the general consensus is that there should be an integrated approach to mend the broken wall of our medical system in order to checkmate medical tourism. To that extent, governments at all levels should intentionally take steps to forbid all serving public office holders from travelling overseas on medical tourism. That is the only way local public health institutions can work.

According to Dr. Asuquo, “All public tertiary health institutions specially should be made compulsory referral centres in the country where senior public servants would rely on as against running out in search of medical attention that are readily available in the country.”

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