ABUJA - Nigerian authorities say the country is losing more than $1 billion annually to medical tourism as tens of thousands of Nigerians travel abroad in search of the best treatment. Nigeria’s Health Ministry says it is building several world-class health centers to address the issue, but not even the country’s president seems to trust health care in Nigeria.
Fifty-three-year-old Ibrahim Bello, a former Nigerian lawmaker from Kaduna state, lost both his parents to diabetes. He was afraid the disease might run in the family, so he went for a medical exam.
Unhappy with the quality of care at home, Bello flew to India, like many of Nigeria’s well-to-do.
"Comparative analysis between Nigerian case and where I passed through in India, honestly, I cannot do it here because the margin is so wide that every Nigerian who has any health issue - his prayer is how can he be moved to India," he said.
Bello is one of tens of thousands of Nigerians who each year opt to travel abroad for treatment.
Health officials and some medical professionals argue that good care is available in the country – but at private clinics.
Nadey Hakim, a transplant surgeon who has been practicing for more than three decades, is among those who argue in favor of domestic treatment.
"I don't see why any Nigerian patient should go outside Nigeria to have a transplant when we can do it for them in Nigeria," said Hakim.
But for those who can’t afford private care, or medical tourism, there are few good options.
In April 2001, Nigeria and four other African Union countries met and pledged to target at least 15% of their annual budget for health care. Many years after, Nigeria remains far from reaching the goal and ranks at the bottom of global health surveys.
To provide access to high-quality care, authorities plan to build six new medical centers across the country, said Health Ministry official Nneka Orji.
"These centers of excellence are supposed to deliver those cares, those interventions that people would naturally go outside to seek. Things like cancer treatment, brain tumors, brain surgeries, and fine surgery interventions,” Orji said.
But even Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari — with access to the best health care in Nigeria — made several trips to Britain for medical care in his first term.
In April, he railed against Nigeria’s poor response to public health crises, outbreaks of deadly disease, and mass migration of doctors.
But critics who disagree will be waiting to see what the president will do to change the status quo.