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Discouraging medical tourism in Nigeria

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President Muhammadu Buhari recently stirred the hornet’s nest, sparking off renewed debate on the incalculable damage of medical tourism on the country and the urgent need for all hands to be on deck to discourage it through a total turnaround of the nation’s health care system which is dogged with multiple challenges.

We believe that a dramatic change in the quality of medical treatment for which thousands of Nigerians travel abroad to seek at an estimated cost of over $1 billion annually is achievable in the near future if only all the stakeholders in the health sector including the federal, state and local governments, the organized private sector as well as health workers resolve to do the right thing to change the current negative narrative in the sector.

Buhari, we recall, had on Friday, January 3, through the Minister of Science and Technology, Dr Ogbonnaya Onu, during the inauguration and handover of a completed project aimed at checking flooding and gully erosion to the management of the Alex Ekwueme Federal University Teaching Hospital in Abakaliki, Ebonyi State capital urged Nigerians to stop going abroad for medical treatment.

Nigerians he noted “have suffered so much going abroad for medical treatment. This is not good for us and it must stop because we can’t afford it again,” the president was quoted as having counseled citizens.

Quite expectedly, the advice has triggered scathing reactions from some members of the public with the opposition People’s Democratic Party, PDP, describing Buhari’s comment as self-indicting  and accusing the number one citizen of leading on the medal table of Nigerians who travel overseas for medical treatment.

The PDP National Publicity Secretary, Mr. Kola Ologbondiyan, in a statement said it was  ridiculous, a situation where a President, who patronized foreign hospitals for treatment and even check-ups; whose administration had allegedly  failed to provide adequate healthcare in Nigeria, could turn around to pontificate to other citizens against foreign treatment and urged Buhari to show example by patronising any of the nation’s public hospitals on his next medical appointment so that he could experience the healthcare reality that fellow citizens had been subjected to under his government.

The party further declared, “Mr. President can then discover that our health system has suffered untold neglect under his watch, leading to dilapidated infrastructure, empty drug shelves, decrepit and worn-out equipment, brain drain and demoralised workforce worse than his 1983 recollections (when he described government hospitals as mere consulting clinics).

 “It is even more disheartening that all the investments and robust programmes of successive PDP administrations, namely the comprehensive National Strategic Health Development Plan, Saving One Million Lives Initiatives, National Health Insurance Scheme, among others, have been degraded and impaired by the dysfunctional APC administration”, Ologbodiyan insisted.

However, we note that time has come to end the blame game and demand that Nigerians especially the affected stakeholders in the healthcare to frontally address the myriads of challenges confronting the sector namely, brain drain; inadequate personnel and technical expertise;  poor and insufficient medical equipment; poor treatment of patients resulting in inadequate health outcomes; poor remuneration and motivation of medical staff; low government’s budgetary allocation to hospitals over the years; loss of confidence in the country’s health system because of the poor service delivery; poor housekeeping and sanitation; disrespectful attitude of health workers and also a perceived lack of confidentiality on the condition of patients.

Besides, to further discourage growing culture of Nigerians seeking medical treatment abroad as well as boost the image and reputation of the health system we demand that health workers including doctors, pharmacists, nurses, midwives, paramedics and other personnel should immediately resolve turn a new leaf and make their services patient centred in order to restore the apparent loss of confidence by citizens.

In our opinion, only a positive change of mindset and attitude of care givers toward the patient who must be accorded full confidentiality and due respect, provision of state- of- the- art facilities in the nation’s primary, secondary  and tertiary health institutions, investing heavily in developing research infrastructures that lead to important new developments in healthcare as well as upgrading existing specialized hospitals that to enable them handle major health cases such as cancer, kidney, heart and brain ailments for which Nigerians are now mostly seeking overseas treatment will set the country on the path of reversing increasing medical tourism.

As a nation, we cannot afford to be left behind in the highly lucrative medical tourism described as the process of travelling to a foreign country by patients to obtain treatment which has become one of the choices for potential economic growth in many countries across the globe while the services sought comprise elective procedures or specialized surgeries such as cardiac surgery, dental surgery, joint replacement and cosmetic surgeries, as well as access to other healthcare services such as psychiatry and convalescent care.

We believe that Nigeria is endowed with the human capital and material resources to upgrade its healthcare to global standard which is only possible if stakeholders in the sector deliberately take a break from the past and engender appropriate machinery in motion to achieve high quality care.

To attain this, we recommend that the federal and state governments should as a matter of national priority encourage post graduate training for doctors to enable them specialize in various medical fields as against the current practice where majority cannot pride themselves as masters in their chosen career.

Similarly, government should emulate other medically advanced nations and establish Health Bank where doctors can easily source loans at a single digit interest rate with repayment period of many ears, not only to establish private hospitals but equip same with modern equipment  to meet the ever increasing demand for medical treatment by patients whose needs, experience has shown cannot be fully catered for by public health institutions nationwide.

To bridge the existing funding gap in the nation’s healthcare system, the various governments are further encourage to double their budgetary allocation to the sector in subsequent budgets especially their capital votes in order to provide funds for the purchase of new equipment, upgrading of existing facilities, providing decent accommodation to health personnel near their places of work and possible upward review in remuneration to further motivate them.

We challenge the leadership of the organized private sector to henceforth take more than a passive interest in the development of Nigeria’s health sector by partnering with government through adequate funding especially in the area of corporate social responsibility in the national interest since as the popular maxim goes ‘a healthy nation is a wealthy nation’.

In the final analysis, and with our healthcare elevated to compete with the best globally, through the combined efforts of private and public sectors, many Nigerians particularly public office holders such as federal and states functionaries  who have been spending taxpayers’ billions of naira on medical tourism coupled with private citizens who can afford it, will have a rethink and begin to restore their confidence and patronage of the local medical system thereby  saving the country huge foreign exchange hitherto channeled to destination countries like India, the United Kingdom, Egypt, United States, South Africa among others. Truly and surely, this is the only sure way forward for our dear fatherland if we sincerely desire to discourage medical tourism..

For a better society

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