The number of Nigerians that travel abroad for medical treatment in recent times is so alarming. The development should worry the government and the nation’s health authorities. There is no doubt that many Nigerians have even lost faith in the nation’s healthcare delivery system due to lack of adequate medical facilities and at times dearth of medical experts. The seeming hopeless situation has warranted those Nigerians who can afford the cost to opt for medical attention abroad.
The fact that the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), Ibrahim El-Zakzaky and his wife, should travel to India for medical attention shows that all is not well with our healthcare system. Although the IMN leader and his wife spent about 96 hours in India before returning to the country following a misunderstanding between the cleric and the doctors, the fact that such a treatment can be accessed in an Indian hospital epitomizes the poor state of our health care delivery system. Available statistics show that over a billion dollars is spent annually by Nigerians on medical tourism. It has also been established that many Nigerians travel to the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, France, India, Thailand, China, Turkey, Malaysia, Singapore, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to treat kidney, liver and heart diseases. They also go for eye surgeries, neurosurgeries, cosmetic surgeries and orthopedic surgeries. Some government officials also travel abroad for medical treatment. Medical tourism has become a fad among the elite, public officials and other Nigerians who have their babies delivered in hospitals in Europe and North America. Even the poor who are afflicted by certain ailments seek for funds from kind-hearted individuals to enable them embark on medical tourism abroad. Unfortunately, the nation’s healthcare system does not give much cause for cheer. With inadequate funding of the healthcare infrastructure and poor administration of the system over the years, the country’s health sector has remained comatose. The primary, secondary and tertiary healthcare systems are facing many challenges. Some international health agencies are aware of some of these challenges. For instance, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) says that Nigeria’s health indicators are some of the worst in Africa. It also says that with an uncontrolled, frighteningly increasing population projected to reach 440 million by 2050, Nigeria is plagued by innumerable developmental challenges. According to USAID, Nigeria drags down the socio-economic indicators for the African continent. Nigeria has the second largest number of people living with HIV globally and accounts for nine per cent of the global HIV burden. The country also has the highest burden of malaria globally – a top cause of child illness and death. In 2017, the World Health Organisation (WHO) ranked Nigeria 187 in the global health index among 190 countries. Earlier in the year, the United Nations put the life expectancy in Nigeria at 55 years, the third worst in the world. It is worst than those of war-ravaged countries like Syria (73 years), Afghanistan (65 years) and Somalia (58 years). With the country’s health sector in such a parlous state, it is no surprise that many people would prefer to seek medical care abroad. Yet Nigeria parades some of the best brains in the medical field in the world. Unfortunately, these medical experts have migrated to Europe and America in search of greener pastures. By this action, they have encouraged the brain drain in the sector.
The major challenge of the health sector is the absence of an effective health insurance scheme that can adequately cover all Nigerians. The National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), which came into existence in 2005, covers less than ten per cent of the Nigerian population. The most vulnerable populations access treatment in public health facilities that are not affordable. It is shameful that Nigeria cannot boast of world-class healthcare facilities that can be ranked alongside those in Europe, America and India. A situation where Nigeria loses billions of naira annually to medical tourism is quite unacceptable. The government should wake up to its responsibilities. The unbridled resort to medical tourism does not augur well for the development of the nation’s health care delivery system. Nigeria should have specialist hospitals that can handle cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Therefore, to stem the growing medical tourism, government should prioritise healthcare, equip the moribund health facilities across the country and make the NHIS work.