Prioritising the Health Sector in 2019

Immediate past Minister of Health, Isaac Adewole

While the world is still in the euphoria of the beginning of a new year, health experts opine that if the Nigerian government gives priority to the health sector this year, the country’s healthcare indices will improve for the better. Martins Ifijeh writes

The beginning of every year comes with stock taking on successes made in the previous year and the challenges that couldn’t be surpassed. For many, it is a time to reflect and re-examine mistakes made in the previous year and make amends in the New Year, to avoid a repetition of such mistakes. But for others, it is a time for renewed hope and expectations; a time to set goals and resolutions, and expect to meet them by the end of the year.
As the world welcomed in another year last Tuesday, expectations among Nigerians were not only limited to individual projections and personal goals, but expectations on what they anticipate from their country, especially as Nigeria faces another election year.

Generally, Nigerians are looking forward to a fair, credible and peaceful general elections come February; they expect the economy to improve and take Nigerians out of the current poverty status; while insecurity is reduced in 2019. These expectations are not limited to the economy and security of the nation only; Nigerians are also looking forward to a better healthcare. They believe for a country to be wealthy, it first has to attain good health.

Specifically, this year, Nigerians are looking forward to better primary healthcare facilities, lesser disease outbreaks, reduced medical tourism, improved maternal, newborn and child health, reduced brain drain, state of the art facilities for the treatment of cancers, kidney diseases, and heart failures.

Fixing Cancer Machines
The 2019 wish of the Director of Nigeria Turkish Healthcare Travel Council, Dr. Adebayo Sobawomo is simple; he wants the Nigerian government to fix cancer machines such that the needless cancer deaths in the country due to scarcity of cancer treatment facilities will be averted.

Nigeria presently has over two million persons living with various forms of cancers with only about seven cancer machines available for treatment in the entire country. To make matters worse, only about two machines work at a time in Nigeria, with others either broken down per time or not working up to standard.

According to Sobamowo, “in 2019, I want to see that we have functional comprehensive oncology centres to tackle the current scourge of cancers in Nigeria. I expect to see multiple life saving linac machines deployed in public hospitals across Nigeria. We can also up our partnership with the private sector just as it entails in countries with better healthcare.”

Call for Better Primary Healthcare

It is no longer news that for a country to have a better healthcare system, its primary healthcare (PHC) must be accessible, affordable and qualitative to its people. But same cannot be said of Nigeria’s primary healthcare facilities.

Speaking with THISDAY, a Medical Officer, Livingstone Medical Centre, Lagos, Dr. Richard Salu, said if the Nigerian government can fix primary healthcare in 2019, it would have solved more than half of the problems in the sector.
He said: “We presently have about the worst maternal, newborn and child mortality rate in the world, with our children and mothers dying from what ordinarily can be prevented. If this is the only thing we focus on in 2019, our government will end up making a difference in the health sector.

“When basic health facilities are put on ground, pregnant women will no longer give birth at home or with traditional birth attendants. If our PHCs function properly, our children will be immunised, they will not die from malaria, cholera, pneumonia or diarrhea. This is how other countries run their system.”

Sobamowo, on his part, said this year, he expects to see strengthened PHCs driven by funding from the Basic Healthcare Provisions Fund (BHCPF), adding that he also wants “to see more states funding of healthcare. States should also start implementing health insurance scheme”.

Tackling Disease Outbreaks
Sobamowo also believes the Nigerian government needs to do more to address incessant disease outbreaks in the country.

“The Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has to continue to use innovative technologies to improve surveillance on Ebola, Lassa fever and other epidemics. The return of previously eradicated polio also needs to be reversed by achieving total national immunisation coverage”, he said.

Earlier, the Chief Executive Officer, EpidAlert, Dr Bakare Lawal, had told THISDAY that the Nigerian government needed to take few steps backward and redesign the health sector if it must address disease outbreaks and tackle the myriads of healthcare challenges facing the country.

He said for a country to be seen to be preventing diseases, it must first have a data base of all its citizens irrespective of where they are, and that such database should include allergy profiles, biology profile, electrolyte profile, blood profile, and other profiles of every single Nigerian.

He said: “How can we say we are making progress in disease prevention when Nigeria as a country does not know whether its citizens exist not to mention knowing the health profile of such citizens.

“Each citizen is unique and that uniqueness must be captured in a database. For example, someone’s profile can tell whether the person can heal fast if knocked on the head. That database will then provide information to the person on what should be avoided or embraced.”

He said no doubt Nigeria has built few health facilities, but that the basis should first be addressed, adding that disease prevention is a house and individual thing rather than a health facility thing.
He opined, “Our health system is largely waiting for those who fall ill to come in and receive care, whereas if we do the basics, many Nigerians would not need to access health facilities as often as they do now.”

He said countries that have excelled in their healthcare took disease prevention seriously, and made deliberate steps to provide information to their citizens, adding that it is only when a country knows the profile of its individual citizens that it can provide information to them on risks, hazards and how to prevent diseases.

Curbing Medical Tourism
When President Muhammadu Buhari assumed office in 2015, not few people believed he was going to stop public officials from accessing healthcare abroad at the expense of government fund. But few months into his administration, he broke that public trust; went to the United Kingdom for treatment, and this has continued till date.
However, medical experts believe that if priority was given to improving the sector, Nigerians, including its president, would not need to travel abroad for treatment.

A Senior Medical Officer, National Obstetric Fistula Centre, Abakaliki, Dr. Eliboh Monday Osazebemide, while speaking with THISDAY on New Year day, said if in 2019 the Nigerian government, including states and local authorities, fix the health sector, healthcare indices will improve.

He said: “My expectation for the sector is for us to fix the system, improve capital development of health personnel, increase awareness on the expertise of our medical personnel and promote the services available in the country, so that Nigerians will no longer need to travel abroad for healthcare.”

While every Nigerian is making New Year resolutions, we also urge our government, stakeholders and the citizens to prioritise healthcare as one of their 2019 resolutions