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MASTERCLASS: West African surgeons tackle obesity to address medical tourism

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*Dr Abuchi Okaro

By Sola Ogundipe

In line with commitment to bridging the skills gap amongst doctors in the West African healthcare industry, and as as part of its relentless approach to ensuring adequate control of obesity across Africa, world-class diagnostic & treatment healthcare company, Euracare Multi-Specialist Hospital, Lagos, recently hosted the 1st Bariatric Surgery Masterclass in West Africa.

Specialist doctors from across the sub-region gathered to rub minds on the growing problem of overweight and obesity within the region and beyond, with the aim of sharing knowledge among doctors and building their skills on a specialist weight loss procedure known as Bariatric surgery.

In this interview, Consultant Laparoscopic and Bariatric Surgeon, Dr Abuchi Okaro talks about the overall essence of the masterclass in tackling the obesity menace on one hand by promoting bariatric surgery, and on the other hand, curtailing the penchant for medical tourism in Nigeria and West Africa.

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Okaro  who has performed over 300 weight loss and gastrointestinal surgeries, expects that the masterclass would help bridge the gaps that are fuelling medical tourism within Nigeria and the sub-region. Excerpts:

Essence of Bariatric Surgery

Bariatric surgery is about weight loss but weight loss that is done over time. The surgery which is minimally invasive is done to adjust mostly the stomach and some of the intestines to result in eating of less food and much more control in smaller diet which will ultimately lead to weight loss. The weight loss process may take a year or two with the support and monitoring of experts, practitioners, nutritionists and other surgeons.

Reducing medical tourism

It is almost impossible to predict that because at the end of the day the reasons people go abroad for medical tourism which is not limited to Nigeria by the way, are multiple. One of which is the lack of availability of relevant services and care. So yes, in that regard it will. Ultimately, the only way you can begin to tackle health tourism in a healthcare system that is not well established or has gaps, is to bridge the gaps with services and see how the public responds. Bariatric surgery may not reduce medical tourism wholly but Euracare has made this service available in Nigeria for easier access. The primary focus of setting up this type of service is purely because people deserve to have it close to home.

The Masterclass

I am very excited about this because it has taken me about two years for all this to come together. It is not easy to call a group of specialists who are always busy to make time. It is not something I could do on my own and needed to have the support of influential people. Euracare of course has been generous with their unending support. I was also opportune to have the support of Medtronic, a large American healthcare manufacturing company that we use their equipment to perform the surgery. They are actually the ones that made this happen.

Overall objective

This masterclass is really purposed to bring like-minded surgeons together as we are all facing similar challenges in surgery. Challenges not just in terms of the operations, but also in terms of techniques and shaping the information out there in the public domain while trying to build confidence in what we do. Another key aspect is our common zeal to educate not just the public but also our colleagues, doctors and nurses to communicate that these procedures are available locally.

The other thing that is nice to do is when you have a complex set of problems and you bring people together and you share your triumphs and challenges, you will get solutions and that’s really the main reason why this masterclass is of importance. It is bringing people from across West Africa including Ghana, Cameroun, Abuja, and Lagos. We have also been able to dial in (video call) to our colleagues from London, Texas. This gave us access to a bulk of information, which I think is very powerful.

Expectations

The Masterclass should be continuous even though it is a first of its kind. There is expectation of a de-brief by the end of the class, which will encourage independent opinions. I will leave it up to them whether it’s been useful enough for them to have another one. However, I believe it is ideal to organise this annually and on a grand scale.

Preventing obesity

The surgery is the small part of it. The big picture is actually about educating the big community out there about healthy living/eating and all other benefits that comes from that. So prevention is key. It is worth adding that for a patient that already has the problem, the dietician and nutritionist and mind-set of a patient is very important too.

We approach the treatment of a patient alongside a multi-disciplinary team. A multi-disciplinary team is a combination of different individuals with different strengths who come together with the purpose of advising and supporting each other. So absolutely right, it is not just the surgery. The surgery is a fixed part of a very long process. Having said that the benefits are clear, there are obviously a lot of hurdles in terms of selection for the surgery and obviously challenges in terms of recovery and risks which anybody will understand.

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Delivering a standard

But the purpose of it is to be able to deliver a standard that is considered international and best practice. As we operate on a strict adherence to international standards. At the end of the masterclass, participants are expected to have opened up their minds. We can’t underestimate the importance of feeling you’re not in isolation particularly in the West African region.

Achievement

Personally, it been an overwhelming joy. I have been doing bariatric surgery in Nigeria since 2011. So really to bring colleagues around in 2019 is an amazing achievement and I’m pleased to be a part of it. Let’s see what the future holds. I remain optimistic that we are at a crossroad for care for patients in this country and region. I feel like this is really one big step in that direction.

The obesity problem

Obesity is a significant issue and its linked with hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, sleep apnoea, back pain, knee pain, infertility, and certain cancers. These are real problems in this part of the world. It’s no fantasy. There is no gender discrimination for obesity and overweight.

Advancing Bariatric surgery in Nigeria and Africa

The point about this is a multilevel campaign. Two weeks ago, I was in Abuja talking about the impact of bariatric surgery in the treatment of type 2 diabetes which is a really great opportunities to talk with experts. The masterclass is a great example and I’m sure you guys will push it out through your outlets to get the discussion going and Euracare on its own has generated testimonials, to enlighten. The point is there is a huge amount of work to be done.

The simple message is that we can solve some of these problems. You don’t have to travel too far and if you choose to you can have it done locally. We are working hard as a group of specialists to make sure we are adhering to guidelines. We are refining our practices to make sure that they are of the highest quality. We are supporting each other in terms of intellect and expertise. The focus of the mind to the problem at hand. This is a real demonstration. We have the backing of the industry and it is a massive endorsement. There is a lot of work to be done and we are here to do it.

Vanguard

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