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Why Nigeria should bridge the gap in medical tourism

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By CHIOMA OBINNA

Yinka  Joladu, a civil servant has been suffering from End-Stage-Kidney failure.  Doctors managing her case have recommended further treatment abroad.  Yinka, a mother of  four, is considering travelling to India or United State of America (USA) for her surgery.  She was required to pay a whooping sum of N6 million for the life- saving surgery.

Since she never knew which hospital to visit, she made enquiries with some other patients from Nigeria who have travelled to India for similar cases.   Today, Yinka is alive and well courtesy of an Indian hospital. Yinka is one of such Nigerians contributing to the estimated $200 million, Nigeria loses to medical tourism annually, according to former Minister of Health, Prof Babatunde Oshotimehien.

Kate Johnson 33 was not lucky.  Kate was diagnosed of cancer of the lungs few years ago. Since then, her family knew no peace. They run from pillar to post to raise money for her treatment.

Unfortunately, the economic situation of   the country has not made it easier for them.  She was placed on radiotherapy in one of the teaching hospitals in the country, after one year of treatment, she could not continue because her family could no longer afford to pay the exorbitant cost of the treatment. She was forced to relocate to their hometown, apparently to wait for her death.

Steve, may be the most unfortunate as he was flown abroad for a complicated heart surgery. Few days after the successful surgery, Steve died on his flight back to Nigeria. Steve is one of the thousands who died due to complications arising from far distance travel after surgery. He is also one of those Nigerians who lost their lives for non availability of  the needed care.  Steve, would have been alive, if the country’s healthcare system is capable of taking care of such  life- saving surgery.

Reports have shown that serious medical conditions such as heart disease have been known to force many of these tourists abroad, while there is no serious reasons such as the fad to be delivered of their babies are also regularly recorded.

Today, the advent of globalisation is currently promotingmedical tourism.Unfortunately, Nigeria is yet to embrace the new development in health even  as the healthcare system is yet to be repositioned like what is obtained in countries like UK and India.

While countries like India and UK are making millions of dollars annually through medical tourism, healthcare situations in Nigeria have degenerated to the extent that patients no longer have confidence in the system.  It is now being likened to “a car  with a broken engine, while you keep on changing the driver with the hope that the car will perform;  but what you actually need is to fix the car”

Available statistics have shown that not less than 3,000 Nigerian patients visit Indian for medical tourism monthly and out of the number, about 1,000 are mis-diagnosed.  These ranges from critical to the mundane just to travel out of the country for foreign medical attention.

Medical tourism could be defined as “The set of activities in which a person travels often long distance or across the border, to avail medical services with direct or indirect engagement in leisure, business or other purposes.”

But generally, the health professionals do not prefer to mix the word “medical” with “tourism.” They have an idea that the word tourism reduces the value of decision which is primarily made for medical services. They also argue that not every patient get involved in tourist activities. An interesting argument would be if patient travels abroad, he/she would be certainly exposed to the culture, environment, food, heritage, leisure or other various aspects of destination’s activities.

Obviously, emergency or critical care travels should not be considered as medical tourism. Such travels could be subject to medical travel, say be medical evacuation for instance, but not medical tourism.

Why do patient travel for Medical services? What are the key factors driving this industry? Primarily there are five major factors involved in decision making process of medical tourist. These are called the “five  A Factors.”   They are; Affordable, Accessible, Available, Acceptable and Additional.

However, the state of healthcare in Nigeria, has forced many patients, according UNFPA Executive Director, “ to go for all manners of treatment that could be confidently treated and handled in Nigeria. The country has to make concerted efforts to upgrade her health care facilities to the standard that would attract patronage from patients outside Nigeria, or stop Nigerians travelling overseas”

It is no longer news that Nigeria is faced with problems of brain drains as many of  its medical professionals are leaving the country for greener pastures due to lack of infrastructures. Most equipment in our hospitals are either broken down or obsolete. Where you see good ones, they are not in use because people that are supposed to use them are not properly trained.

This clearly demonstrates why Nigerians will continue to seek medical care elsewhere unless something urgent is done to rebuild the nation’s health system with a view to returning the patients confidence. But this situation can also be seen as a big opportunity for Nigeria & Nigerians to take a lead at becoming a hub for Medical Tourism.

This can be achieved through; infrastructural development and improved competences of personnel by continuous training of Doctors and other health workers.

One of the easiest ways out of this challenge remains Private Public Partnership (PPP) programmes in healthcare. If we are to achieve the number 4, 5 & 6 Goals of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) come 2015 as well as benefit from the estimated $20 billion market in medical tourism, which has also been estimated to hit $100 billion by 2020.

The estimations indicate a strong potential for medical tourism not only at the moment but in the future. This is one of the reasons why management of Global Resources & Projects International (GRPI) Nigeria Limited through its annual Health Exhibition and Conference is calling on the Nigerian government to embrace PPP for infrastructure development in healthcare by investing and ensuring that the country’s health system is strongly built to cater for its citizens and also attract patients from the sub-region.

In the views of Dr. Wale Alabi, Chief Executive officer GRPI, “If proper attention is not given towards resuscitating the collapsing health sector, Nigeria may end up losing the sector to foreigners. Asians and other countries like Egypt, South Africa and India have identified the potential of Medical Tourist from Nigeria. They are benefitting tremendously from the present situation. At present, about two or three India players have already set up shops in Nigeria.

In a chat, Alabi said, “It has also been found to be ‘cost effective,” particularly for patients needing surgical or other forms of specialised service, Improving  healthcare services in our health institutions will discourage the habit of encouraging capital flight from Nigeria through medical tourism .  He said the current trend in medical tourism today in Nigeria, could become an economic threat to the nation’s health industry and scarce foreign exchange. “The trend represents a drain on the nation’s scarce resources and a disincentive to the improvement of healthcare services.”

Furthermore, Alabi said with West Africa’s healthcare budgets (Both in Private and Public Sector) projected to grow to more than U.S $10 Billion in 2012, the 6th edition of the West African Health and Conference Exhibition (WAH) would afford medical practitioners, entrepreneurs and investors,  access  to new medical technologies as increasing number of countries like US, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, China, Germany & Turkey are participating at this year’s exhibition to showcase their new range of medical equipment, scientific and laboratory instruments, hospital furniture, pharmaceutical products and services.

The theme for 2011 WAH is “Public Private Partnership in Healthcare.”  Major stakeholders in the health sector are expected to use the platform to x-ray the potentials of PPP in healthcare, ongoing and successful PPPs. Expected at the event which will hold from 7th – 9th September, 2011 at Eko Hotel and Suites in Lagos are about 500 exhibitors from 29 countries.

Alabi said “The conference will provide a forum for the exhibitors to broaden their customer awareness with unique prospect of launching and displaying new products aimed at improving the quality of health services and make valuable business contacts with prospective buyers such as doctors, healthcare providers, aspiring health practitioners and a wide range of professional such as company executives, hospital administrators, specialists, planners and users of different types of medical equipment.

 They will also exchange ideas on the efficient management of the health sector to ensure the effective use of health products while providing quality services.” The health exhibition will also feature Hospital management Workshop, Free Health screening, tele-consultations and products launch.

Benefits of Medical Tourism
Medical tourism – the process of “leaving home” for treatments and care abroad or elsewhere- is an emerging phenomenon in the health care industry. Broadly speaking, medical tourism is the act of traveling to obtain medical care. As patients are exposed to greater financial burdens resulting from higher co-payments and price transparency efforts, they are likely to seek low cost treatments abroad. The safety and quality of care available in many offshore settings is no longer an issue. People who travel abroad look for safety, quality, and accreditation certification.

* One of the main benefits of medical tourism is the massive potential for savings. Treatment is much more affordable than the patient’s home country.

* Those who require treatment urgently often benefit in medical tourism

* Another factor to consider is health insurance. People without health insurance, or with a limited insurance policy, are more likely to seek other options such as medical tourism. If the prices of healthcare services increase, the range of treatments and procedures that the health insurance policies cover decreases.
* A side benefit of medical tourism is having the opportunity to travel to another country.
* Medical vacations can be affordable
* Medical tourism provides you with options
* Medical vacations can be fun
* Health care costs are constantly on the rise in some countries

Risks of medical tourism
* Medical tourism which is the practice of traveling to another country for health reasons is actually a trade-off. While there are advantages like affordable costs, quality health care, and a chance to recuperate and have a vacation at the same time, there are also risks of medical tourism.

Among these risks are legal and ethical issues. In case problems arise, patients or medical tourists might not be covered by their personal insurance or might not be able to seek damages through malpractice lawsuits. Although many hospitals and clinics abroad have medical malpractice insurance, seeking compensation can prove to be difficult because insurance laws may vary. It is still easier to understand the laws in your own country as well as rules and guidelines regarding malpractice suits.

* Medical tourists also face the risks of acquiring infectious diseases. Patients who are still weak after their surgery have no natural immunity to foreign diseases and this may be one big hazard they have to face. One thing that should be looked into in medical tourism is the quality of post-operative care.

* Patients should also be cautious in traveling long distances after surgery since this might increase the risks of complications. It is also not recommended to travel alone after surgery.

* Scouting the best hospital, clinic and doctors is also one disadvantage for medical tourism.

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Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.