The health sector needs more investment

The successful separation last week of conjoined twins by 78 medical personnel is a plus for healthcare delivery in Nigeria. With a fused liver, a protruding tummy and lower chest, the twins were delivered at the Federal Medical Hospital, Keffi, Nasarawa State before they were referred to the National Hospital, Abuja where the complex 12-hour operation was performed. “One of the reasons why some Nigerians travel abroad for treatment is because they lack confidence in the health sector”, said an apparently excited Minister of Health, Dr Osagie Ehanire. “They believe that we do not have specialists and the required medical equipment to handle sensitive cases, but this case has shown that we have the expertise. No foreign aid was involved in the surgery.”

The assessment by Ehanire is frank and hard to fault. Only four years ago, for instance, a set of twin girls named Miracle and Testimony Ayeni, conjoined in the pelvic region, had to be flown to Tennessee, United States, where they were separated. In a very expensive venture, the twin girls were initially taken to the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital (UNTH), Enugu, immediately after delivery before they were moved to Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH), and eventually flown abroad in a sponsored flight. That such complicated operations could now be performed in Nigeria is worthy of celebration.

It is noteworthy that the UNTH in Enugu has been performing open-heart surgery since 1974. Indeed, between 2013 and now, it has reportedly performed more than 300 heart surgeries, working in collaboration with the United States-based medical volunteer group, VOOM Foundation and the Pobic Heart International of Italy. Its medical students have benefitted greatly from the knowledge of such regular surgical interventions. 

 However, while we commend the efforts and dedication of the Abuja medical team for this successful surgical intervention, the authorities must do more if we are to reverse the present trend and rekindle confidence in the country’s health sector, particularly in the area of modern medical infrastructure. In the last three years, the cardiovascular laboratory at UNTH Enugu has reportedly packed up. The entire South South and South East regions made of 11 states are now served by a cardiovascular laboratory in Bayelsa Specialist Hospital, Yenagoa. Lagos is served by three laboratories while the entire north is served by a privately-owned lab in Abuja. Since cardiovascular diseases are some of the leading causes of death, people are bound to seek help outside if the facilities are not available within the country. 

The lesson from the Abuja surgery is the need to improve the working conditions and environment of medical personnel. There are pools of local talents but government has to do more by equipping established hospitals with modern technology and encouraging the private sector to establish multidisciplinary hospitals which offer specialist treatments in many fields. The brain-drain syndrome is accentuated by inadequate modern infrastructure for professionals to work with. Besides, confidence will gradually be restored if medical professionals are exposed continually to relevant trainings, workshops and continuing education.

It is becoming clearer by the day that Nigeria can no longer afford to continue to waste billions of naira on overseas medical trips. The Medical Director of the National Hospital, Dr Jaf Momoh, said that the parents of the twins would have spent more than N20 million if they could afford travelling abroad. Only recently, President Muhammadu Buhari said the country spends around N400 billion annually on medical tourism, indirectly promoting capital flight. 

The federal and state governments must expedite action in ensuring that our health system is of international standard and efficient. Nigerians want to see practical steps in building health facilities that can handle complicated medical conditions which ironically have become so common.