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‘Pursuing wellness requires practise and forgiveness’

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Simi Alabi

Simisola Alabi is a medical doctor and founder of Vine Health, an organisation providing health information in simple language, digital health services, and supplements that boosts health. She is also the founder of Beyond Wealth, an NGO that aims at bringing together wealthy individuals who want to build on their wealth and commit to giving back to the community. The speaker, teacher, and healthcare leader is a graduate of Medicine from the University of Lagos and Medical Education from the University of Bedfordshire Health Policy-Imperial College. A visiting consultant to the Department of Family Medicine Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), Alabi also practises Clinical Medicine part-time in the United Kingdom where she teaches future general practitioners. The wife and mum are involved in leading various public sector projects in healthcare including population health management and primary care networks. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she shares her passion for health and wellness as well as concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tell us about your interests in health, wellness, and medicine, how did you find yourself in this field?
MY interest in health is obviously linked to being a medical doctor. However, my interest in wellness has developed seriously over the last five years. I was taught to listen to patients’ complaints and use an algorithm, which was developed over years of training, to make a diagnosis and then set a management plan. This is the disease model. While I absolutely enjoy the challenge of this way of delivering health, it is a small part of what contributes to overall health; this only contributes to 10-15 per cent of overall health.

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Wellness is an area that I have pursued that is aimed at preventing disease or slowing disease progression. These are lifestyle and environmental factors that you may have control over. There is huge potential in governments focusing on wellness, as not only does it save money, it also boosts productivity as healthy life expectancy increases.

A few years ago, in my role commissioning health, I came across the issue of low vitamin D levels in Africans and the impact on overall health. This is something that can be so easily corrected by taking a supplement, but many people were unaware, which made me develop a line of vitamins and supplements for Vine Health. The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the importance of keeping well and optimising your body to fight the virus if contracted. The vaccines help to boost your body’s response to the virus particularly if you are over 65 or have other underlying conditions.

You said doctors only contribute 10-15 per cent of one’s overall health, why is this so?
Doctors can only try to make you well after you have developed an illness. What you want to do is to understand your mind and body so well that you don’t need us in the first place. Imagine a brand new car, how do you prevent it from needing frequent repairs? You keep it at optimum performance by making sure it gets serviced on schedule; you wash it, polish it, but the right fuel, you understand what the warning lights mean and rectify them etc. That is the same with your mind and body. These are reflected in the lifestyle choices you make with your diet and exercise, where you live, work, the people you surround yourself with, among others.

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What are some of the healthcare practices people should be involved in to stay healthy?
If you can understand what you need to eat, in what quantity and frequency, you are a long way there. Exercise is also crucial and best done most days to get the most benefit. Understand what works for you, no need to follow trends. We then also have sleep, hydration, meditation/prayer, vitamins, and relationships. All of these are intricately linked with your mental health. There’s so much to say about the mind and your mental health as this influences a significant proportion of your health outcome.

As a wellness and health advocate, what are some of the policies you hope to see come to light amid the COVID-19 pandemic?
I really hope that this will be a wake-up call for our dear country to develop our healthcare system; make healthcare digital. Electronic health records and robust databases should be strengthened. Primary care training should be widespread and every doctor should have access to good quality specialty training.

The weakness of our health system has been further exposed by the pandemic. Most other countries were able to swiftly transition from the traditional face-to-face consultations to virtual ones; Nigeria has been unable to do so, which is such a shame.

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What is your view on the COVID-19 vaccines?
I have been closely involved in the deployment of the vaccines in my current role as Clinical Director. We have been using two types so far and there will be others: The PfizerBiontech and the Oxford-AstraZeneca. The synthetic mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid) technology used has been in development for years. It tells the body to produce a fight response to the virus by mimicking the protein on the covering of the virus so that when you come in contact with the actual virus, your body has been primed to fight it.

The vaccines ensure that you don’t get severely ill with COVID; it does not mean you still cannot contract it or spread it. Some of the vaccines need to be stored at very low temperatures (-70c), while others can be stored at higher temperatures (-2 to 8degrees Celsius). For our country Nigeria, we will need to consider our cold chain storage logistics and capabilities in deciding which vaccine to procure. Most of us have had vaccines and we also give them to our children to protect them against diseases like polio, measles, diphtheria, and so on. They are considered safe and have not been shown to have detrimental effects on the body.

What is your take on the healthcare system in Nigeria? Do you think the government is doing enough and how much more is expected of the private sector?
Nigeria’s healthcare system is like that child that just refuses to grow up. There is so much potential, so many brilliant healthcare professionals who have been let down by the system. I am very privileged to be able to still be involved in my Alma Mater as a Visiting Consultant, so I see how dedicated and hardworking the doctors are, but you are only as good as your tools. The government is not doing enough, but I am not sure that this is intentional. The way the system is organised and the lack of infrastructure may just be too big a task for any government.

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What I would expect is to start to see areas of the development just like we saw in the banking and telecoms sectors in the late 90s’. The private sector is doing an excellent job, but I truly believe that a strong private sector cannot support a weak public healthcare system. Most people cannot afford basic healthcare hence the government needs to take into consideration millions of people and their health provision, which is lacking right now. We need to radically develop to a point where we can start to carry out our own clinical trials, develop our own medicines and vaccines rather than depending on other countries. We have the brains now; we just need leadership and governance. There is simply no reason why people like me cannot lead a drive to produce and deploy our own drugs and vaccines; we need an enabling environment.

What are some of the challenges you have faced in your quest to ensure healthy living and wellness?
Personally, pursuing wellness requires practice and forgiveness; I don’t always get it right, but I am always prepared to try. In preaching the wellness message, the challenges I have come across are deeply ingrained health-beliefs that are unhelpful.

For example, believing in a quick weight loss solution or other quick fixes, also stigmatisation of physical and mental illness, secrecy, and an unwillingness to seek accurate information or the bombardment with false information.

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Childbearing takes its toll on women, what specific healthcare routine should they focus on and what advice do you have for them in managing their health?
Childbearing is normal and with the right maternity provision, women should be able to recover and back to pre-pregnancy status over a reasonable period. Unfortunately, maternal mortality in Nigeria is still one of the highest in the world due to harmful societal practices and poor healthcare. I will strongly advise every woman planning to get pregnant to find a reputable healthcare provider and also seek information herself; the right vitamins, the right tests, take note of mental health and domestic violence, exercise, and the right diet, and surround themselves with positive energy.

As a mum, doctor, speaker, teacher, and healthcare leader how do you marry all these responsibilities and still stay on the top?
I forgive myself daily. I know I won’t always get things right, but then who does? I fully commit myself to every role that I have been blessed with and this year particularly, I choose the right energy to keep in my space.

As a philanthropist, what really motivates you?
To whom much is given, much is expected. I have always been looking for a way to do something bigger than myself in memory of Dr. George my mentor and in honour of my amazing mother who is a pillar of strength. I have always supported charities, but then this idea came up in 2019 while I was completing my Masters in Health Policy, which combined wealth and education and it felt right. In the future, we want to support other projects. Black students have it tough both in Africa and in Diaspora and this first project is a contribution towards improving their outcomes.

What key values do you live by?
Fairness, justice, and equity; live and let live. Don’t judge others, be fair and give everyone an equal opportunity. Be kind to everyone, what goes around comes around. Seek to understand others, listen more than you speak and be humble.

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