Dr Wale Omole, one of the ‘products’ of the gadfly, Tai Solarin, is the founder of Tai & Sheila Hospitals and the Non-Government Organisation, National Problems and Solutions (NPS), based in Lagos. He speaks on what has become a norm among Nigerian leaders to seek medical treatment abroad; challenges facing the health sector and calls for psychiatric test for public office seekers. KUNLE ODEREMI brings excerpts:
IT was common to blame the woes of the country on military rule, but virtually all those vices that characterised the life of the country have persisted 17 years under a civilian dispensation. Do you think anything is wrong with us as a people?
A Nigerian is a Nigerian, whether operating in military uniform or as a civilian. Many of them who ruled as military men in those days are today the leading politicians! Uniform makes no difference. The good or bad they did in military is what should be expected when they remove their uniforms to operate as politicians because they are still the same people. This is one of the reasons why the woes of the military era are still with us today.
Politicians who are failing would blame the military just like the military blamed the civilians in those days of military era. But these are not even the main issues. I think the main problem is the type of human beings we are. After all, majority of the ruling politicians today were never in the military. It appears something is inherently wrong with us. Look beyond Nigeria, most of the African nations are backward, they face similar situations.
Our hospitals were once described as mere consultation rooms in justifying a coup. Why hasn’t the country been able to have hospitals of international standard?
Our hospitals will continue to be described as “mere consultation rooms” for as long as the law permits political office holders to seek treatment outside the country. Nothing happens by accident. People work for what they get. If our government fails to develop our hospitals to the expected standard, the hospitals will remain, “mere consultation rooms”. The foreign hospitals Nigerian leaders run to were developed by the political leaders of those foreign nations. They do not want to entrust their lives into the hands of foreign countries. They run abroad for treatment because they know that they have not developed our local hospitals to any measurable standards. No political leader wants to die. And we don’t want them to die anyway. But they know the injuries they have through the years inflicted on the Nigerian medical system. So they don’t want to take the risk of taking treatment here in the country. To them, it is safer to go and spend the money meant for developing our local hospitals abroad on personal treatments.
Many teaching hospitals in this country have no functional basic life support equipment. Many equipment are dated back to the 70s. Completely obsolete! Radiotherapy machines, functional ICU, taste of the art cardiology and renal equipment, MRI machines, PET scan, modern surgical equipment, to mention a few, are lacking in most of our teaching hospitals. Whereas many general and private hospitals abroad have all these.
Do you think government is now demonstrating the required political will to fix and re-position the health sector?
The present government means well in aims and objectives to reposition the health sector, judging by their manifestos, but it is now almost impossible to do. In fact, it must have jumped out of their priority list. The government is fighting so many battles right now. Some of them include tribal and ethnic clashes, religious clashes, kidnapping, Boko Haram, inability to pay civil servants, corruption in every sector of the economy and within the government bad roads, president’s poor health, hunger, inflation, armed robbery, national insecurity, youth unemployment, pensioners’ protests etc. The government is overwhelmed and distracted. But more importantly, every top government official has alternatives of countries to go for treatment. However, it is doable if government commits it into the hands of the experts and not just ignorant political friends who have nothing to deliver.
Some have argued that Nigerian leaders prefer to seek treatment abroad because of their lack of confidence in the Nigerian medical experts, coupled with the brain drain syndrome that has affected the sector. To what extent is this true?
It is true that Nigerian leaders prefer to seek treatment abroad, but not because they lack confidence in Nigerian medical experts. Instead, they lack confidence in the country’s poor medical system which they have politically put in place through the years. Many a time when Nigerian leaders run to India, England, Germany, USA, they still go there to meet their own Nigerian trained medical experts who are performing wonders in these countries that value Nigerian doctors who are lost to brain drain syndrome. Nigerian-trained doctors constitute one of the world’s best trained doctors. We are soundly trained. Kudos to our teachers and professors.
Nigerian leaders go out to foreign countries because they are afraid to be victims of the systems they have created. For instance, President Mohammadu Buhari recently received treatment in London, not because he doesn’t have confidence in Nigerian medical experts, but because he knows too well that: functional equipment are lacking in all our teaching hospitals for the experts to work with. While receiving treatment, power may go off; drugs to be administered on him might have lost potency due to poor storage as a result incessant power outages; fake drugs abound in the country.
These are some of the factors driving political leaders away from Nigerian hospitals, not lack of confidence in our medical experts. So, their going abroad is to primarily seek safety and then treatment. These cannot be blamed on Nigerian experts, but on the political systems that have failed through the years.
One could view President Buhari’s treatment abroad as a big slap on the face of Nigerian medical experts and a big shame to Africa. But no! I cannot blame the man because it would be a big risk for him to be treated in Nigeria under these highlighted conditions. President Buhari could not be directly fingered as one of those who contributed to the political failure of our health sector and the country as a whole. He has come to power two times to correct the political misdeeds of his predecessors. Incidentally all the contributors today go abroad for simple headache and cold. Ironically many of those who are afraid to die in Nigerian hospitals go out to die in the cold and their remains are flown back home. How many of such well-to-do people can we count?
I cannot blame the serving senators, ministers, governors and the affluent people like Dangote, Otedola, Adenuga, Alakija, and so on, who do not want to take the risk of their lives, since they are all aware that our medical system suffers poor funding and political insecurity.
What are some of the tough measures that need to be taken to check huge sums of money the country loses due to medical tourism?
Let the rulers set a target date, say year 2025 when all our government hospitals would be of equal standard to those they visit abroad. Legislate that no top government official be allowed to take treatment outside the country after the set date. Make it a criminal offence. Put in the necessary facilities in all our general and teaching hospitals to match any standard abroad. Bring back home our medical experts in the foreign lands. Encourage the experts at home. Send batches of local medical experts in government and private on tour to India, Germany, USA, England, Ireland, Australia and UAE to see modern hospitals, equipment and operations. Provide enabling environment for research. Vote money annually for research. Establish more medical research institutes. Provide government loans to establish private mega hospitals. Make electricity stable and uninterrupted in all government hospitals. Make the hospital environment safe for all.
Then, do you subscribe to the advocacy for psychiatric test for political leaders, and other public office seekers and why?
To me, that advocacy does not have enough basis. Therefore I do not subscribe to psychiatric test for political leaders and public office seekers. If psychiatric test is to be correctly prescribed as a result of corruption, 90 per cent of Nigerian adults are qualified to undergo such tests. Corruption is not limited to the political leaders or public office seekers. You need to test the managers, the pastors, doctors, lawyers, the drivers, lecturers, the bankers, pepper sellers, public servants even pensioners. There is corruption everywhere in the world.