NIGERIA: Medical Tourism: Drain On Resources

ABUJA (LEADERSHIP NIGERIA) -- That Nigeria still has the largest number of people in Africa travelling out of their countries for medical attention is an issue that requires urgent reassessment with a view to putting an end to it. That reassessment becomes increasingly pertinent as it was recently revealed that the country loses a whopping $1 billion to demands for medical facilities abroad. This is not just an embarrassing profligacy but also a disgusting self-indictment.

 It is a national shame for a country whose citizens’ power healthcare service in most First world countries. By sheer ineptitude, infrastructural decay and poor leadership, the country continues to groan under inadequate Medicare that should be taken for granted given our enormous human capital in that sector. 

The unfortunate part of this deplorable situation is that policy makers whose duty it is to find a lasting solution to the situation resort to Jeremiad lamentations over the waste that are unhelpful. Otherwise, if they are honestly perturbed by the scale of capital flight lost in the process, what they need do is to speedily address the major challenges that bedevil the survival and development of the sector. Practitioners in the industry will shun brain drain and medical tourism will become unattractive, unjustifiable and needless if the facilities and motivation to do the work here, at home, are in place.

 Once the government demonstrably shows a commitment to fund research, upgrade facilities and promote dignity of labour by paying the doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other ancillary staff, the practitioners will be encouraged to stay back home. The country’s health insurance programme should also not be limited to federal government employees. The organised private sector who is only forced into several pilot schemes should be carried along to ensure cumulative coverage for the people. Primary healthcare facilities in the rural setting should also be evenly spread across the country. It is sad that the country is lost among countries with success stories on social health insurance. There is no denying the fact that Nigerians lack trust in the services provided by their compatriots on affordable and sustainable long term health services within the country. That explains why those who can afford it jet out at the slightest sign of any ailment. 

It is laughable that government often restates a policy that outlaws members of the administration seeking treatment for ailments that can be treated locally. Laughable in the sense that this policy has regularly been observed in the breach. Also, that policy creates the impression that it is only a public sector problem. Actually, the bulk of the drain is perpetrated by the private sector.

There is also a pervasive assumption that there is a huge investment in the sector enough to make medical tourism unnecessary. But a recent revelation by the President’s wife about the state of affairs at the elitist State House Clinic in Abuja puts paid to that assumption. The Lady was appalled that even with the supposed huge budgetary provision for the clinic, it still lacked implements as basic as syringes. What that revelation points to is the fact that there is a huge gap between allocation and actual disbursement of funds ostensibly captured in the budget. And without that needed disbursement, it will amount to holding to the wrong end of the stick as far as provision of adequate medical facility is concerned. 

Nevertheless, in our view, Nigeria has no business looking up to other countries for healthcare or to be spending an estimated $1billion on medical tourism yearly when a good percentage of those attending to them are indigenous Nigerians. It goes without saying that if the country tweaks its infrastructural facilities; engender good policies and professionalism, travelling abroad for medicare will instantly become undesirable. Indeed, the table will be turned and the country will begin to play host to medical tourist from other countries. The operating environment, regulatory and monitoring mechanisms for ethical conduct will also need to be revitalized because it has been proven that unscrupulous Nigerian medics also make fortunes from meaningless referrals. Statistics have also shown that one-third of Nigerian patients who travel abroad are mis-diagnosed cases and many have also met grim deaths after some complicated surgeries on their flights back to Nigeria.

 A disheartening fad is that many now go abroad to be delivered of their babies, when Nigerians rank among the best gynecologists in the world. With over 160 health institutions, churning out over 2,000 professionals in nursing, midwifery, pharmacy, laboratory technology and almost all fields of medical science, medical tourism on that score alone should not be attractive by any means. The government should stop the needless lamentation on what, essentially, is a failed policy and put its acts together to stop the wastage of scarce resources.