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African leaders and medical tourism

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President Robert Mugabe

It is important to state from the outset that most African leaders have failed themselves and the nations they govern in health care delivery to their citizens. Nowhere is this better reflected than when they are compelled to seek medical care abroad each time they have routine or serious health challenges. Nearly sixty odd years after independence, most African Heads of State still travel to Europe or Asia for health check or treatment. This is sad.

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari has been in the United Kingdom for over two months receiving treatment for an undisclosed ailment. Also, 93 year-old President Robert Gabriel Mugabe of Zimbabwe who has held the office of president for nearly 40 years is in Singapore for eye treatment. What a sad commentary on the quality of leadership in Africa!

Truth, however, is that things were never this bad. It is also true that Africa, especially Nigeria has very competent hands that can render excellent health services if the conditions are right. It is on record that the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) and University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan were once on the top list of health facilities in Africa. As Head of State, then General Yakubu Gowon’s wife had her baby at LUTH. Members of the Saudi Royal family once patronised UCH all the way from that rich kingdom. Also, the nation’s teaching hospitals have produced first class doctors who now practise in the United States of America, the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia, and the Caribbean to mention but a few. Indeed, some wealthy Nigerians who travelled to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s found themselves in the care of doctors of Nigerian ancestry. The current preferred destination for most Nigerians with serious health challenges is India.

Different administrations have made attempts to strengthen Nigeria’s public hospitals. Some private elitist hospitals have also sprung up in the last 20 years in Lagos and Abuja. Yet, these attempts have not met the needs of Nigerians. Patients generally seem to have a deep preference for hospitals abroad. At a point, four teaching hospitals were selected as centres of excellence. They were furnished and equipped by the Federal Government through a special intervention scheme. But the effort has failed miserably. The said hospitals have reverted to their old order of poor facilities, poor service, inefficiency and recording high mortality rates through carelessness.

The private sector has to come to the rescue of the nation and the continent. Well-trained doctors should be helped to invest in health care delivery. Thousands of specialists exist in Africa, with Nigeria having a lion share. They should be able to establish first-rate hospitals that would generate confidence and make Nigerians patronise them. The Mayo Clinic or John Hopkins Hospital in America reputed to be excellent hospitals are not the creation of the government. Private investors have sustained these excellent hospitals through time.

It has been established that most government-owned establishments cannot be run efficiently in Nigeria. Governments, therefore, both at state and federal levels, should concentrate on creating an atmosphere that would make the growth of an effective health care system possible. This can be done by deliberately promoting medical tourism within Nigeria. Government should stress the positive always. Government officials should lead by example. Leaders pass a vote of no-confidence in Nigeria’s hospitals each time they travel abroad for medical check-ups or treatment. It is an open secret that although the Nigerian public may not know the details of our current president’s health status, the details will certainly be known to the leaders of Western nations in whose hospitals he is seeking treatment. This is bad national pride and security.

The National Hospital in Abuja which was created to meet serious health challenges has not lived up to that billing. Elsewhere in the world, the military usually run first rate hospitals. The Nigerian Armed Forces should therefore be in the loop of creating excellent health services for its personnel and highly-placed persons whose health status might have security implications for the country.

The need to build strong health institutions supported by a well-funded, well-run National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) cannot be over-emphasized. Too many citizens have lost their lives because of their inability to pay their health bills. In a country that has so much wealth, this is a disgrace. The governments at different levels should realise that a strong health care system is for the overall benefit of everyone, both the ruler and the ruled. Policies should therefore be initiated and carefully implemented to guarantee continuity. The National Assembly should focus on positive legislative actions in the health sector. Senators and Representatives should not concentrate on feathering their own nests alone. The overall interest of Nigeria should be their concern. They should ensure that the National Health Insurance Scheme is properly operated to capture people in the informal sector.

Finally, African leaders should save their nations and their peoples from the embarrassment of seeking medical help abroad ever too often in spite of the rich human resources which the continent has. Doing just that would be the ultimate act of patriotism.



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