Foreign medical treatment for public officials

PHOTO: itv.com

It is a national embarrassment of intense proportions that Nigerians, who can afford it, continue to flock to foreign countries to seek medical care while the poor are left with no other option than to probably die in the nation’s decrepit hospitals.

Therefore, that the health sector requires attention is no news because, for decades, Nigeria’s health sector has been characterised by a disturbing degree of deterioration due to neglect by successive administrations. Indeed, it is now near total collapse with very little hope of revival. Even the State House Clinic established to take care of the President, Vice-President, their families as well as members of staff of the Presidential Villa, Abuja has joined the league of hospitals that cannot deliver basic healthcare services. This came to the public glare when Mrs. Aisha Buhari was ill in 2017 and was advised to travel abroad because of the poor state of the clinic. Indeed, she opted to go to a private hospital owned by foreigners when she was told that the x-ray machine in the State House Clinic was not working.

Although some strategic departments in some tertiary hospitals were once equipped in the Olusegun Obasanjo administration, some of the equipment installed have since been tampered with and cannibalised with the result that the supposed centres of excellence are not much better than consulting clinics. So, in spite of the billions of naira expended on some tertiary hospitals, the challenge in the sector remains daunting. Again, poor funding, inadequacy of medical facilities, high cost of drugs, sub-standard drugs, wrong diagnosis, high morbidity and mortality rates, poor attitude of health workers and neglect of patients by medical personnel, are all characteristic elements of the Nigerian health care delivery system.

Therefore, the brain drain that began in 1985, leaving the country with just inadequate number of practising physicians and specialists attending to 180 million Nigerians has reared its head again. This is against the World Health Organisation, WHO’s design that for any country to claim to have enough doctors for its population, it should have one doctor for every 600 persons. This means that Nigeria needs about 300, 000 medical doctors, but has about 35,000 working in the country today. Even these few working medical officials do not have a condusive operational environment. The consequence of this is grave! Due to lack of investment in the health sector in the last couple of decade, the country is not only facing brain drain, but also ‘patient drain’ because of lack of confidence in the sector, with the attendant capital flight. It has been estimated that Nigerians spend $2.5b (about N1.25t) on foreign medical trips yearly. This may account for why President Muhammadu Buhari in April 2016 said the Federal Government would not provide funds to any government official to travel abroad for medical treatment unless the case cannot be handled in Nigeria. He said: “While this administration will not deny anyone of his or her fundamental human rights, we will certainly not encourage expending Nigerian hard-earned resources on any government official seeking medical care abroad, when such can be handled in Nigeria.”

Unfortunately, the President broke the promise barely a month later in early June 2016 when he was flown to London to be treated, supposedly, for an ear infection and returned later to the same London for another six months of treatment. Also, a former Vice-President, Dr Alex Ekwueme recently died abroad seeking medical care. These examples, of course, indict the nation’s health care system and put those in power to shame.

So, it is heart-warming that the Members of the House of Representatives have realised that the health sector needs attention, as they complained bitterly over the rapid decline in medical facilities and services in the country, which is forcing many Nigerians to seek life-saving treatment abroad. It appears that they are resolute to address the problem of the health sector through legislation and should they succeed in regulating public officers’ trips to foreign countries for medical treatment, they would have done the nation a world of good. While they recognise that the measure, could be “draconian” in outlook, some argue that it would force the same public officials to pay adequate attention to the health sector in Nigeria.

To attest to their commitment to walk the talk, “A Bill for an Act to Amend the National Health Act, 2014 to Regulate International Trips for Medical Treatment by Public Officers, to Strengthen the Health Institutions for Efficient Service Delivery; and for Related Matters” has passed second reading in the House.

This move is commendable as it is a demonstration of good leadership, which is a critical variable in dealing with the crises in the health sector.
However, the legislature alone cannot solve the problem of the Nigerian health sector; it requires collaboration, especially with healthcare professionals.

Although, the bill shows that there is the political will to salvage the sector, the bill should be subjected to public debate; and the views of various stakeholders (NMA, CSOs, other medical professions, development partners and organised private sector)  taken into cognisance. The stakeholders can help operationalise the National Health Act to deal professionally with issues of clinical governance, medical education and research, and improving health care delivery nationwide in line with global best practices.
So, to fully revive the decaying health sector and stop medical tourism, there is the need for improved funding, timely release and judicious use of the funds. Also, there should be better planning of the healthcare system and private sector investment. The urgent need to build the critical infrastructure as well as foist the right environment for good healthcare delivery system in Nigeria cannot be over-emphasised.

Also, can partner with governments and take over the existing public hospital buildings that are wasting away all over the country and turn them into quality healthcare facilities. This strategic partnership can lead to the much-desired revolution in the health sector. It is definitely more cost-effective to treat Nigerians in the country than anywhere else in the world.

Hopefully, by amending the National Health Act, 2014 and with more investment in the health sector, many citizens will have access to quality and affordable health care, while the capital flight occasioned by medical tourism will be a thing of the past.

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