By Umaru Dauda
The Coronavirus pandemic was a calamity that exposed the decadence of Nigeria’s health system. At the emergency period of the pandemic, experts said Nigeria was lucky not to be one of the epicentres of the infection otherwise the country would have become such a vast cemetery the world had never previously seen. Beyond availability of highly competent personnel, the country simply lacked the capacity to contain any major health emergency.
A scholar and Dean, College of Health Sciences, University of Ilorin Teaching Hospital, Ibrahim Katibi, had disclosed in 2019 that Nigeria spends over $1 billion annually on medical tourism, adding that at least 500 Nigerians seek healthcare abroad monthly. For a service as basic as diagnostic, many Nigerians would rather go abroad where they are sure of appropriate and evidence-based results than seek diagnosis in Nigeria where there’s always a fair chance of misdiagnosed.
This is why the investments that have been made by the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA) in the country’s health sector is good news for Nigerians and for the West African sub-region. After transforming the agriculture sector with its unparalleled investments in fertilizer production that has created thousands of jobs across the country, the NSIA now appears to have shifted focus to the health sector.
This is a sector that had suffered decades of neglect and its cheering news that it is now getting the required attention. The management of the NSIA looks to be in a hurry to fix the priority areas of need in the sector as it takes on several projects at almost at once. Undoubtedly, cancer management and disease diagnosis rank highest among medical reasons why Nigerians (who can afford it) travel overseas, especially to India, and the NSIA is seeking to turn change the situation.
Its first big investment in health was the established of a state-of-the-art Cancer Centre at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) in Lagos to address the burden of cancer in the country. It is an $11 million investment designed to stop medical tourism out of Nigeria when it comes to cancer. The facility provides advanced radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatment services at affordable cost. It has facilities to treat 100 cancer patients daily for just N900, 000- a fraction of what similar services cost abroad.
The NSIA has followed this highly important project up with the establishment of two world-class diagnostic centres that would rival similar facilities anywhere in the world. The two diagonostic centres are located in Abia and Kano States respectively.
The NSIA/Umuahia Diagnostic Centre in Abia State was recently inaugurated. The Chief Executive Officer, NSIA, Uche Orji, who spoke at the occasion, described the facility as a world-class diagnostic centre that can match the ones seen in developed nations.
The project reportedly took years to develop and was eventually completed in 18 months and at a cost of approximately $5.5 million. Once fully operational, it would be the largest and most modern diagnostic centre in the South-east and South-south region of the country.
The project was executed as a Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) through a Special Purpose Vehicle owned 90 per cent by the NSIA and 10 per cent by the Federal Medical Centre Umuahia. After a 15-year period, within which the NSIA is expected to have recovered its investment, full ownership of the SPV and its assets will revert to FMCU.
NSIA-Umuahia Diagnostic Centre is a full-service facility that will provide comprehensive radiology and laboratory services to ensure the highest quality of care for all Nigerians. Experts project that within its first year of operations, the Centre is expected to serve as many as 70,000 clients and provide direct employment opportunities to about 47 people.
The Centre is also strategically located and designed to serve the South-east and South-south regions of the country to bridge the yawning gap in medical infrastructure. Now, no one needs to travel to other parts of the country or abroad to access quality diagnostic services.
The Centre is the third facility in NSIA’s expanding healthcare portfolio alongside the modern diagnostic facility also established in Kano, which is the NSIA Kano Diagnostic Centre (NKDC) and the NSIA LUTH Cancer Centre in Lagos.
NSIA’s investments are unique in its ambition to improve health infrastructure through collaborations with the private sector. It is a template that guarantees more rapid development of the health sector. The projects are structured under a public-private partnership arrangement for the rehabilitation, equipping and operation of an existing centre.
The diagnostic centre in Umuahia will be operated by Statpath, a joint-venture between Synlab, a global leader in pathology and Crestview, a tier-1 radiology company in Nigeria, which would facilitate skills and knowledge transfer to the FMCU pathology and radiology teams. Speaking on the structure of the project, Orji said the public-private partnership structure would ensure that the centre is maintained to the highest standards, and that FMCU benefits both financially as well as through training of its staff.
The Abia State governor, Okezie Ikpeazu, who was present at the inauguration, understands the importance of the project and its location in the state. Speaking at the event, he said the state was renowned as an industrial state but would now be known and lauded as a “centre for excellence in healthcare.”
The governor, who was obviously elated by the development, said the project represented a compliment from the federal government about what the state was doing to transform the health sector.
“I was pleased to learn of the establishment of a cancer centre in partnership with the Lagos University Teaching Hospital which the President commissioned in Lagos. Following the establishment of the cancer entre, the state was convinced that the decision to consider Umuahia for a diagnostic centre will serve not only the Southeast region but the South as a whole and complement the growing stock of healthcare infrastructure in other parts of the nation,” he stated.
While the diagnostic centre in Umuahia will serve the Southeast and South-south pending when other centres are built in the region, the one established in Kano will serve the Northern region pending when more centres are established across board.
The President Muhammadu Buhari administration had committed to checking the rate of Nigerians traveling abroad on medical tourism by building world-class health facilities. The ultra-modern Umuahia and Kano diagnostic centres are expected to be replicated in each of the six geo-political zones of the country, while the Federal Government had already floated a special scheme under the Ministry of Finance to enable less privileged Nigerians access the facilities..
According to the Minister of Finance, Mrs. Zainab Ahmed who presented a keynote speech in Umuahia, President Buhari’s administration is putting its focus on greater investment in the healthcare sector and working to ensure increased access to safe, high quality service for every Nigerian.
This may explain why the NSIA is making efforts to spread its investment reach across critical healthcare areas. Mr. Orji, the CEO of the NSIA revealed recently that the Authority was set to begin investments in pharmaceutical production to make available to Nigerians essential drugs that are currently imported. Indeed, the NSIA is slowly but steadily midwifing a rebirth in Nigeria’s health sector, and the showcase facilities in Umuahia, Lagos and Kano are the evidence.
Dauda writes from Surulere, Lagos.