By Chioma Obinna
News of notable Nigerians embarking on medical tourism abroad has remained a topic for discussion for years. The fact that even high profile Nigerians and government officials top the list of those seeking medical care overseas remains a major issue.
Statistics available show that Nigerians spend over $1,000,000,000 on medical tourism annually.
The widely acknowledged Ibom Specialist Hospital, Uyo, established by the former Akwa Ibom State Governor, Mr. Godswill Akpabio, towards enabling the average Nigerian patient have access to advanced and effective healthcare services, appears not to have changed the status quo.
Fifteen months after Ibom Specialist Hospital, fashioned after the famous RAK Hospital, Dubai, became operational, medical tourism still continues unabated in the country.
Records show that at least 50 per cent of Nigerian patients travelling abroad are headed for destinations in Europe, Asia, America and other parts of the world.
Medical tourism is eating deep into pockets of Nigerians and the economy and there are concerns in several circles.
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 and in the process, patients are exposed to greater financial burdens.
Perhaps this was the motivation for the initiator of the Ibom Hospital in effort to replicate the RAK, Hospital, Dubai, in Akwa Ibom State.
Experts from the RAK Hospital that assisted in setting up the Ibom Hospital as one facility to address the many reasons Nigerians go abroad for treatment, were on track with the State government.
Today, the Ibom Hospital is world class and higher in status than a Teaching Hospital in Nigeria. It was established to shorten travel time for patients going abroad. People often die while being airlifted abroad for treatment. It was also to generate revenue from health tourism.
From the entrance to the reception, a first timer to the hospital might mistake it for a five star hotel. Equipped with modern facilities ranging from 640- slice CT scan (Toshiba) which is the first in West Africa.
Others include Magnetic Resonance Imaging, (MRI), x-ray with digital radiology, and computerised radiology and fluoroscopy; mammogram machine, and other advanced diagnostic equipment.
The laboratory is fully equipped with cutting edge equipment and results obtained from the facility are certified 100 percent accurate due to digitalised x-rays.
There is a multipurpose x-ray machine while the MRI is reputed to emit no radiation effect with reduced time for patient to a maximum of 15 minutes, and it can capture a patient irrespective of the patient’s position.
With a BC5380 Mindray machine, different cells in the blood are screened to check haemoglobin level and other parameters can be done within five minutes and the machine can run up to 50 samples at the same time. It also has a Cobat C311 machine mainly used for biological test, calcium, level tests and can load up to 100 samples at a time within 10 minutes.
In terms of personnel, Ibom Specialist Hospital parades experienced doctors, nurses and technicians committed to delivering the highest quality of care.
Health watchers are of the view that with equipment and facilities in the hospital, have potential to make Nigeria a medical tourism destination of choice.
However, these objectives are yet to be achieved as the hospital is currently underutilised. The beauty, allure and luxury of the environment, wards, private rooms, operating theatres, etc., are irresistible.
A visit attests to the fact that the hospital may have been abandoned by the State government despite the huge investment.
Awareness about the facility across the country could be better even as Nigerians continue to travel abroad even for ailments treatable in the hospital at affordable costs within the shortest period.
Notable Nigerians have also attested to the potential of Ibom Hospital to deliver the nation from medical tourism. Recently, the Minister of Health, Prof Isaac Adewole, during his maiden visit to the hospital declared the Federal government had no business sponsoring treatments for Nigerians abroad as from 2017.
Adewole who reportedly pledged that Federal Government would partner with the Akwa Ibom Government on the operations of the Specialist Hospital to stop Nigerians from seeking medical treatment abroad, was optimistic that with facilities on ground there, medical tourism abroad could be be reversed.
“Visiting the hospital complex today is an eye opener, there is no such complex like this anywhere in Nigeria. We will start using this facility, with this facility, no Nigerian will be allowed to go abroad for treatment,” the Minister said.
Currently Ibom Specialist Hospital runs on generator 24 hours daily, all week because it is yet to be connected to the national grid. This is seriously affecting operational costs. An estimated N10 million is expended on generator maintenance and diesel.
Despite these challenges, Ibom Specialist Hospital located in Ekit Itam Uyo, Akwa Ibom State aims at providing international quality healthcare with newest and most advanced medical technology, highly qualified medical staff by redefining the standards of excellence in patient care with premium hospitality, says the Hospital Executive Secretary, Mrs. Faith Akpokighe.
Akpokighe said the hospital is equipped to render complete cardiology services, internal medicine, Neurosurgery and spine centre, laboratory services, plastic, aesthetic and reconstructive surgery, radiology and imaging services, surgery, medical oncology, otolaryngologists (ENT) Rheumatology, urology, gynaecology, nephrology amongst others.
In the views of the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Adewale Adekanye said given the right attention by the government, the hospital has capacity to reverse medical tourism in Nigeria.
“We are calling on government and companies to bring their people and get the best of services even at affordable rate compared to flying patients abroad
“Here, you pay only N5, 000 to see a doctor. There is a lot of potential in this hospital because this place was built to stop medical tourism and we have treated patients that would have travelled abroad and they are okay now. A patient just left now, when she came in her case was really bad. Her people wanted to take her abroad but she was treated here and she is better now. The family was surprised that it could really be done in Nigeria.
“We have come a long way at short period of time. We have achieved almost 100 percent success in most of the departments particularly in surgeries we have done. In neurosurgery unit we have done brain surgery in a six days old child. We have also removed tumour from a young child skull and that was done successfully. The baby is alive and fine.
“We have also seen and treated successfully patients who broke their spine or neck, hip and back in an accident. We have had people who came in and could not lift their hands or walk and after surgery they are able to walk and go home. We removed tumour in the brain of a patient referred from National Hospital Abuja to the hospital. The patient is alive today. The patient is right now abroad getting radio therapy done right now.
“In general surgery, we have virtually started operation without opening patients up and that is what we call laparoscopy surgery. We have done about six successful ones since we started.
Also in gynaecology, the hospital has carried out several surgeries through endoscopic procedures such as laparascopic myomectomy and hysteroscopic.
“We have done surgeries where we don’t need to open a patient to remove fibroids. You just make a hole and through that you get the mass or tumour out. We have done over 10 of these so far. The cost of surgery is really affordable, “he added.
The bottom line is that there is no reason any Nigerian should travel abroad for medical treatment. It is an insult to the country. It means that we did not equip ourselves. Our hospital is equipped but people are yet to know, hence, the need for government collaboration and partnership.
Also speaking, the Hospital’s Plastic Surgeon, Dr. Eapen Koshy, said patients come from all over the country, including Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt. He observed that no less than 30 plastic surgeries are carried out every month. An average of 250 of such surgeries have been carried out in the last eight months. The commonest surgery done in the hospital is removal of abdominal fats.
However, as patients are exposed to greater financial burdens resulting from higher co-payments, local hospitals like Ibom Specialist Hospital would help reduce the high cost on the patients as well as ensure safety of individuals. It will also save the country the cost of capital flight.