The $1bn expended on medical tourism

The recent disclosure by the Managing Director of the Nigeria Export Processing Zone (NEPZA), Prof. Adesoji Adesugba, that the proposed world class medical enclave in Nigerian is aimed at ending the about $1 billion expended on medical tourism annually by Nigerians is a welcome development. This is more so, bearing the fact that the novel Covid-19 pandemic and the consequential lockdown of the economies of over 200 countries around the world including the developed ones, has necessitated the dire need for a robust healthcare system for the country. 

Adesugbs said they are expecting a total of 15 world class foreign hospitals and a handful from within the country that could deliver services at take-off by 2021. Adesugba gave this assurance when the new President of the Healthcare Federation of Nigeria (HFN), Dr Pamela Ajayi, paid him a courtesy visit recently in Abuja. 

The NEPZA managing director said the aim is to bring to Nigeria, some of the best hospitals in abroad that our people spend this huge amount of money to the zone. He reinstated that the agency is willing partner with relevant stakeholders to deliver the proposed world class medical enclave to Nigerians, all peoples of sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. 

He said deliberations on modalities for the creation of the zone have reached an advance stage because “we indeed drew members of the committee from the right places. Medical experts, zonal experts, industrialists, medical equipment manufacturers, are among those on the committee and this explains the speed of our progress.  

“The Healthcare Federation of Nigeria has some of its affiliates that are already buying into this great opportunity to invest in. Aside from the fact that zone operators have 100 per cent return on investments, no investment made in the medical zone in Nigeria will evaporate’’, Adesugba said. 

Also, Dr Ajayi, however, said that the proposed medical free zone when developed would repositioned the health sector, adding that such a destination would ignite healthy competition between local and foreign healthcare providers. 

She further said members of the association were prepared to key into the project, adding, that the Authority should think about reducing fees charged local medical companies to operate in the proposed zone. Ajayi explained that her aforementioned request hinged on facts that local investors had longer term sustainability plans than their foreign counterparts.

“We must begin to encourage Local Direct Investment (LDI) and reduce the hype on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) as far as this project is concern. Doing so would reduce the country’s human capital flight in the medical sector and also encourage those that had left to return home. Indian did it and Indians are reaping bountifully from such political decision”, Ajayi said.

Interestingly, the Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Health Services, Tanko Sununu, said last Tuesday that Nigeria would have lost at least 500 million dollars to medical tourism this year but for restrictions on foreign travels due to Covid-19.

Making a presentation at a roundtable on health security policy and finance in Abuja last week, Mr Sununu, a laparoscopic surgeon, said thousands of Nigerians could not jet out of the country in search of medical care due to Covid-19 restrictions. The event was organised by the Legislative Initiative for Sustainable Development (LISDEL).

It is estimated that Nigeria loses about one billion dollars annually on medical tourism as almost 500 Nigerians go abroad monthly to seek medical intervention. But with flights grounded and countries across the world on lockdown in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, many Nigerians, including the political elite, were forced to use the Nigerian hospitals.

For almost six months, Nigeria skies were shut against international flights after President Muhammadu Buhari placed a ban on foreign travels in March as the struggle to contain the spread of the deadly virus intensified. The ban was lifted only a few weeks as international flights have resumed.

Even before Covid-19, many of Nigeria’s key health interventions, including on polio eradication, vaccination programmes, malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and maternal and child health, remain almost entirely dependent on foreign donors, with the government committing less than $10 per citizen to health under its current budget.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) designates that any country with less than 10 doctors per 10, 000 people is “insufficient”. Nigeria’s ratio works out to about 3.8 per 10, 000 people, well below the recommended standard and short of the numbers of emerging economies like Brazil, Algeria and Cuba. And to further complicate matters, the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) says more than 40, 000 of those registered doctors now work abroad.

Nigeria is a top exporter of medical talent to all over the world; its doctors are a permanent fixture in emergency rooms in the UK, the US, Canada, Saudi Arabia. In South Africa, there are an estimated 5,000 Nigerian doctors; in the UK, that figure is 7, 500, according to figures from its General Medical Council.NEPZA’s proposed medical zone is, therefore, inevitable in the face of the challenges and reawakening posed by Covid-19 on the need for nations, including Nigeria, to strengthen their healthcare system. The case of Nigeria is even more compelling owing to the multifarious challenges confronting healthcare delivery in the country.

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