BusinessDay
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Saudi Arabia headhunts Nigerian doctors in brain drain deja vu

In the 1970s, leaving Nigeria for the United Kingdom as a mental health professional was inspired by his desire to acquire international experience for a good speciality practice.

Femi Olugbile, former permanent secretary, Ministry of Health, Lagos State, was then thirsty for what lay ashore of Nigeria as he pursued a postgraduate degree in one of Edinburgh’s best centres for mental health before returning to the country.

Over four decades later, Nigeria is on the losing side of the quest for better economic benefits by emigrating medical professionals.

Nigerian medical doctors on Wednesday trooped in their hundreds to the Sheraton Hotel in Abuja for the recruitment exercise organised by the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Health.

The professionals from different specialities defied the early morning rain for the exercise which began as early as 7 am, in pursuit of what they believe would be a ticket to a lifetime opportunity to escape the “unfavourable working conditions” endured in Nigeria for a relieving system in Saudi Arabia.

Jennifer Oyelade, director of Transquisite Consulting, an international human resource consultancy noted that Saudi Arabia could gain cheap labour from Nigeria.

“If you look around the world, Nigerians are known for their excellence and education so it makes sense that Arabs will come to Nigeria to get the best of the best to take care of their citizens,” Oyelade said.

She further added that it is going to be a win for professionals going abroad and a loss for those in Nigeria as their talents are being tapped in by international organisations that see their value and worth as they are ready to pay them for their expertise.

Doctors who spoke to BusinessDay expressed optimism that they can finally toe a path to attain their career goals.

They decried that they feel neglected and unwanted in Nigeria following the attitude of the Nigerian government to their affairs, and are therefore determined to seize the opportunity presented by Saudi Arabia.

It was a mixed atmosphere of anxiety, excitement, and hope.

The interview process was held in two different sessions in order to speed up the process as more and more doctors arrived at the location. The seats were all occupied and many doctors were seen standing patiently waiting for their turn with their credentials.

The exercise is being conducted by consultancy agencies on behalf of the Saudi Ministry of Health.

The required categories are anaesthesia, ICU, paediatric, family medicine, obstetrics and gynaecology, eyes nose and throat (ENT), and emergency medicine, internal medicine, ophthalmology, radiology and surgery among others.

The recruitment exercise which began on Wednesday was conducted by PAS solutions, with another recruitment for medical registrars were held on Thursday in Abuja.

“The reason people are migrating is not to work in good companies but because they know that everybody is economically stranded,” Femi Olugbile told BusinessDay.

Daniel Ibiye, one of the doctors who attended the headhunting, tied the rush towards the offer to familiar challenges of unfavourable conditions of work and poor and inconsistent remuneration among others.

Read also: Brain Drain 3.0: The exodus that’s not being televised

The ongoing strike compounds the woes of welfare tussle with the federal government.

Ibiye thinks there is no incentive to stay back when he can make five times his current earnings in Saudi Arabia than in a country where doctors are not appreciated, despite pouring a lot of energy, and time into their work.

Ihuoma Okeke, an ophthalmologist said she can no longer bear the seeming lack of hopelessness in the country saying apart from the unfavourable working environment for medical practitioners, insecurity, on the other hand, is a major push factor.

“We are not safe here. I don’t feel safe here. I work at the Federal Medical Centre in Keffi, Nasarawa state and I’m managing to see how I can cope,” she said.

“I will not suffer the pains of medical school and residency training to be sacrificed overnight. Saudi Arabia is offering me a better working opportunity to build my career, they will guarantee my security and give me a better working condition.”

Andrew Agboola, obstetrician and gynaecologist looks forward to better pay.

Even if he plans to go into private practice, he said the problem of multiple taxations at federal, state and local government levels is very discouraging.

“The cost of equipment is high especially when you are importing them and the exchange rate. I personally can’t even afford a good ultrasound scan. I am managing about N400, 000 or even second hand. Even to borrow a loan from the bank is also another problem, the challenges are just too much,” he said.

According to Debo Odulana, a medical doctor and founder, Doctoora, a platform that links health experts to equipment, most of the doctors heading to Saudi Arabia will use the country as a transit point to Europe or the United States.

He explained that doctors leave at two stages in their career: before they specialize and after they specialize. But because of the way things are going, Nigeria is seeing doctors leave in the middle of their specialist training, preferring to specialise abroad than to continue the training here.

“In fact, the people going to Saudi Arabia are only going for a while so that they can go elsewhere because the barrier is very low. Most people will be able to prepare and write their exams to move to the UK. If a consultant leaves here, they have the potential to earn 10 times more. They get housing and most things covered as part of the employment,” Odulana said.

Nigeria has about 35,000 doctors registered with the Medical and Dental Council. About 8,000 leave yearly, between 1,000 and 1,200 are added from university, and barely over 4,000 specialists are available across the entire country.

Nigeria will not be able to afford doctors until the central problem of poor healthcare funding is addressed, Odulana said.

And as long as the country cannot fix the structure around payment for healthcare services both at the government and private level and doctors cannot earn well, the challenge will persist, he added.

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