On Friday the 21st of June, it was time once again to celebrate excellence in healthcare in Nigeria.
A cynic, or even an ordinary citizen, might be inclined to ask:
‘Excellence? What ‘excellence’’?
Indeed, the broad picture of healthcare in Nigeria has been gloomy for several decades now. Despite the announcement, with fanfare, of structures set up by government to achieve the WHO-set Millennium Development Goals, and despite the latter-day razzmatazz created around a purported pursuit of Sustainable Development Goals, Nigeria remains one of the worst places in the world to be born and to live. The nation still has among the highest maternal and child mortality rates anywhere, as well as very low scores on quality of life indices. There is little faith, among the public, in their own health services. Where they can afford it, especially where they see their lives in danger, they seek healthcare abroad. Much of the better-quality service that is available in some private and a few public facilities is unaffordable to the great majority of the masses. Health Insurance, the touted solution that would remove the financial barrier to access, is mired in needless controversy at the national level, and fewer that one in fifteen of the citizenry are covered by its provisions.
Speaking of ‘excellence’ in such a context might appear to be the perfect oxymoron.
But beneath the gloomy surface a new and more promising reality is stirring to life. Energy and creativity are being deployed to look at critical issues in new ways. Much of the energy and effort is coming – not from government, but from private sources. The ability of the private sector to play a leading role in the health of the nation is often understated, and, until relatively recently, there was little effort to provoke it into action.
The Nigerian Healthcare Excellence Award, started in 2014, is an annual event designed to encourage innovation and good quality programmes and practices in the healthcare industry. The 2019 edition was the most ambitious in scope to date, with hundreds of individual and corporate candidates being nominated and voted for on line by the general public. The enthusiasm of participation and response was evidence that a healthy rivalry was stimulating people in the industry to raise their game and come up with products and services tailored to meet the health needs of the Nigerian public. These could include direct medical services offered by a hospital displaying demonstrably high-quality standards, a pharmaceutical retail chain with excellent customer service, a private dental clinic providing world class, technology-driven services, for example.
From the outset, the NHEA Awards took an expanded collegiate view of the health team and its composition, including information technology buffs creating mobile phone platforms that could be used for documenting and educating pregnant women in the most rural areas, creators of radio, television and internet platforms for educational programmes, and even banks and other financial institutions that were creating products for health finance.
The evening turned out to be a gathering of the great and the good. Eminent members of the various professions in the health team – doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, laboratory scientists, app and website designers, bankers were gaily dressed, and taking the opportunity to ‘let their hair down’ and mingle. The buffet dinner at the Eko Convention Hall venue was an exciting mix of local and foreign dishes.
In the intervals, comedian Sheyi Shay regaled the audience with smoothly delivered, rib-cracking jokes.
After a brief welcome address from the Project Director – Dr Wale Alabi, and an Opening address by the Chairman of the NHEA Advisory Board, Dr Anthony Omolola, the names of nominees in the various categories were displayed on a large screen in front. The winners were invited on stage to collect their awards.
Among the categories of awards were the Outstanding State Government Healthcare Project of the year – won by Nasarawa State Government, the Private Healthcare Provider of the Year, won by Lily Hospital, Warri, the Tertiary Healthcare Provider of the Year, won by University College Hospital, Ibadan, a Nursing and Midwifery Excellence Award, and several others.
The highpoints of the evening came with the Lifetime Achievement Awards.
Professor Oladipo Akinkugbe, now eighty-five, a teacher you had had the privilege of learning from as a medical student in Ibadan, was a world-renowned expert on Cardiovascular and kidney diseases. He had been a Visiting Professor of Medicine at Harvard, and at Oxford, as well as in Cape Town. He has been Vice Chancellor at Ilorin and Ahmadu Bello Universities and held several international appointments.
Dr Stella Chinyelu Okoli, dressed in her favourite red, created a buzz of admiration as she went up on stage to receive her Lifetime Award. Stella was the quintessential Nigerian success story – born in the North, raised in the East, trained abroad. She founded Emzor Pharmaceutical Industries in 1977. Over the years, the company has soared into the stratosphere. Her current preoccupation was a WHO-standard Pharmaceutical production facility, newly opened in Shagamu. She had a winsome smile, which enthralled everyone she encountered. Underneath it, as you knew, was a steely, unshakeable resolve.
The take-away message for day came, not unexpectedly, from Prof Akinkugbe. Leaning somewhat precariously on his walking stick, he expressed his delight at his award. Getting into his rhythm, he declared that it was impossible for any government to fund all the health needs of its people purely from its budget. His prescription was something similar to the TET-fund – in which 2% of the after-tax profit of all private industry was devoted to Education. He had participated in thinking up the scheme, though he feared it had gone somewhat off the rails. Even half of one percent after-tax private industry profit, dedicated to health, would create a humongous pool of funds and change the face of Nigerian health for good, he averred.
There was music, and still more networking, as the night wound to a close.