Medical tourism, the practice of travelling abroad for medical treatment, has become a common phenomenon among Nigerian politicians and elites, who often seek health care in countries like the United Kingdom, the United States, India, and South Africa.
Political leaders in Nigeria, such as former president Muhammadu Buhari, president Tinubu, Bukola Saraki, former president Goodluck Jonathan and so on, have often been criticized for neglecting the local health sector and seeking medical treatment abroad.
This trend has raised concerns about the quality, trust, and accessibility of the health system in Nigeria, as well as the impact of this movement on the country’s economy and health sector.
According to the Nigerian Sovereign Investment Authority, Nigeria loses about $1.3 billion annually to medical tourism, which could have been invested in the development of the country’s health sector and the country as a whole.
The World Health Organization ranks Nigeria 187 out of 190 countries in the health index, indicating the poor state of the country’s health care system.
Some of the reasons why Nigerian politicians and elites prefer to seek medical treatment abroad include the lack of adequate infrastructure, technology, and expertise in the local health facilities; the lack of confidence and trust in the quality and standard of care provided by the local health workers; the desire for privacy and anonymity amid health challenges; and the influence of foreign medical institutions that market their services to Nigerians.
However, this practice has negative implications for Nigeria’s economy and health sector, such as:
Resource drain: The outflow of foreign exchange for medical tourism reduces the amount of money available for the development of the local health sector and other sectors of the economy. It also deprives the local health workers of the opportunity to learn from and treat complex cases that are taken abroad.
Public perception: The preference for foreign health care by the politicians and elites creates a negative impression of the local health system and discourages the ordinary citizens from patronizing the local health facilities. This may lead to the neglect of the primary and secondary levels of health care and the reliance on alternative and often unregulated sources of health care.
Health inequality: The access to foreign health care by the wealthy few widens the gap between the rich and the poor in terms of health outcomes and quality of life. While the privileged few enjoy world-class health care abroad, the majority of the population suffers from inadequate resources and poor treatment at home.
Some of the prominent Nigerian politicians who have travelled abroad for medical treatment include:
– Former President Muhammadu Buhari, who spent over 250 days abroad for medical treatment during his tenure from 2015 to 2023. He visited the United Kingdom several times for undisclosed health issues and faced criticisms for his frequent and prolonged absences from the country.
– Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who travelled to Germany in 2007 for a corrective eye surgery. He also visited Singapore in 2019 for a medical check-up.
– Former President Umaru Yar’Adua, who died in 2010 after a long battle with a kidney condition that took him to Saudi Arabia for treatment. His health status and whereabouts were shrouded in secrecy and controversy during his tenure.
– Former President Goodluck Jonathan, who travelled to Germany in 2013 for a medical check-up. He also visited London in 2016 for an ear infection.
– Former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida, who travelled to Germany in 2016 for a knee surgery. He also visited Switzerland in 2019 for a medical check-up.
– Former military dictator Abdulsalam Abubakar, who returned to the country in 2020 after spending about three months abroad for medical treatment.
– Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who travelled to Dubai in 2020 for a knee surgery. He also visited the United States in 2019 for a medical check-up.
– Former Senate President Bukola Saraki, who travelled to the United Kingdom in 2015 for a knee surgery. He also visited London in 2018 for a medical check-up.
– Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Yakubu Dogara, who travelled to Dubai in 2016 for an ear surgery.
– Former Governor of Akwa Ibom State and Minister of Niger Delta Affairs Godswill Akpabio, who travelled to London in 2015 for a medical check-up after surviving a car crash. He also visited London in 2019 for a knee surgery.
– Former Governor of Taraba State Danbaba Suntai, who died in 2017 after suffering brain injuries from a plane crash in 2012 that took him to Germany and the United States for treatment.
– Former Governor of Enugu State Sullivan Chime, who travelled to the United Kingdom in 2013 for a cancer treatment.
– Former Governor of Cross River State Liyel Imoke, who travelled to the United States in 2012 for a kidney transplant.
– Former Governor of Kogi State Abubakar Audu, who died in 2015 after returning from a medical trip to Dubai.
– Former First Lady Patience Jonathan, who travelled to Germany in 2013 for an undisclosed ailment. She also visited Dubai in 2020 for a medical check-up.
– Former First Lady Turai Yar’Adua, who travelled to Saudi Arabia in 2009 for a cancer treatment.
– Former First Lady Stella Obasanjo, who died in 2005 after undergoing a cosmetic surgery in Spain.
– President Bola Tinubu, who travelled to France in 2021 for a knee surgery. He also visited London in 2018 for a medical check-up.
More reasons have emerged showing President Tinubu and other political office holders may continue to travel abroad for medical treatment, following the footsteps of former President Buhari.
Analysis showed that after spending N3.66 trillion in six years on budget for the health sector, the country lost more than N900 billion yearly to medical tourism, while over 6,000 doctors, 400 medical consultants and 57,000 nurses left the country for greener pastures in last eight years.
Further breakdown showed only 20 per cent of the 10,000 Primary Health Care centres the Federal Government, under Buhari, promised to refurbish in 2015 has the capacity to provide basic emergency obstetrics services, after over N1.95 trillion investment.
A Price Waterhouse Coopers report states that Nigerians spend $1 billion yearly on medical tourism, with 60 per cent of that on four key specialties: oncology, orthopedics, nephrology and cardiology. This is nearly 20 per cent of the total government spending on the public health sector for the year, including salaries of all public sector doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers, as well as other health programmes like malaria, tuberculosis, polio and Human Immuno-deficiency Virus/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome prevention.