There is a cankerworm eating Nigeria’s healthcare system from the inside. The Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria (MDCN) says there are large numbers of confidence tricksters or ‘quacks’ across the country pretending to be doctors, without any medical training at all.
The parasites are motivated by money, charging unsuspecting patients for their ‘lifesaving’ services … but the real cost to Nigeria is calculated in human lives, with patients maimed or needlessly dying because of misdiagnosis and incorrect treatment.
“They are evil geniuses. Very elusive, and difficult to catch,” says the MDCN’s Inspectorate director, Dr Henry Okwuokenye.
SaharaReporters in partnership with Code for Nigeria today launches a tool designed to change this. The new Dodgy Doctor service uses official MDCN data to help citizens quickly and easily check whether their doctor is properly registered, and whether they are in ‘good standing’ with the medical authorities.
“The toolkit is simple: it allows you to verify that your doctor is a licensed medical practitioner, and not some aspiring Nollywood actor,” explains Code for Nigeria strategist, Temi Adeoye. “All you need to do is type your doctor’s name in, and the service cross-checks it with the MDCN’s master registry.”
Code for Nigeria is a new civic technology and data journalism lab in Lagos, which built the Dodgy Doctors tool for SaharaReporters. The tool is modelled on a similar successful one in Kenya, which was built by Code for Kenya. The Nigerian version is designed to protect citizens against con-artists such as Nwosu Angela Njide, who was arrested in Abuja in September after masquerading as a medical doctor at the British American Tobacco Clinic in Ibadan, as well as the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital and finally at the Rauz Hospital in Abuja.
Njide is the first female arrested for impersonating a doctor, but she is not the only quack. Femi Olabisi Akindele, for example, was arrested in Ogun State after a pregnant patient died while under his care. There are many similar cases, ranging from con-artists ‘recklessly’ dispensing medicines, working at major hospitals, operating networks of their own illegal hospitals, or running ‘mobile surgeries’ from the back of their vehicles. The problem is also not just confined to Nigeria. South African authorities are currently prosecuting Anthony Nwuafor for allegedly using fake Nigerian certificates to claim he is a medical doctor.
“The new Dodgy Doctors tool will help protect people against these kinds of scamsters, by allowing anyone to quickly check whether their doctor is registered on MDCN’s database,” says SaharaReporters editor Declan Galvin.
Galvin added that “these tools, alongside investigative reporting, will help Nigerians expose imposters placing the public in danger.”
It also allows users to immediately report ‘doctors’ whose names are not on the database as licensed practitioners, for follow-up by the MDCN’s Inspectorate and by SaharaReporters’ own investigative journalists.
“People too often allow themselves to be victims, by relying on others to do background checks. This tool empowers citizens to protect themselves by doing a simple 2-minute check online. It also allows all of us to save lives by sending information to MDCN that exposes the quacks who are endangering innocent lives,” says Adeoye.
Both Adeoye and Dr Okwuokenye warn, however, that databases such as the MDCN’s master registry are never perfect, and that instances where doctors aren’t listed need to be investigated before any ‘public lynching’ to ensure that the problem isn’t an administrative error.
“In fact, every doctor in Nigeria should be proactive and should use the tool to check that MDCN has their information correctly registered,” says Adeoye.
But, Is It Enough?
Quacks are, as Dr Okwuokenye says, often ‘evil geniuses’. Nigeria’s public healthcare system is under-resourced, massively overstretched, and is vulnerable to people who want to subvert it.
MDCN believes that hundreds of particularly determined quacks have either tricked or bribed their way through the system, stealing documents or using other forms of identity theft to get licensed with health authorities even though they have no medical training.
The Ugwu Scandal
Dr Martins Ugwu Okpe is the perfect example, says Dr Okwuokenye. Ugwu worked at the very heart of the Federal Ministry of Health for nine years, under a procession of ministers, as a senior medical officer with the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). Ugwu rose to serve as a branch chairman of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), as well as on a government team that helped coordinate an African Union mission that combatted Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. He passed all routine civil-service reviews, biometric verifications, promotion assessments, and was well on his way to becoming an Assistant Director with the Ministry.
Enviable career, right?
It was, until an anonymous tip-off triggered a MDCN investigation that rocked the medical establishment, and exposed the 44-year-old as a con-artist. The truth, MDCN says, is that Ugwu has only a secondary school certificate, with no medical training whatsoever. He stole a friend’s credentials in 2006 to secure a job as a medical doctor with Nigeria’s Civil Service Commission, and rose through the ranks undetected.
It’s a tough one. Was it complicity or just culpable negligence on the part of recruiters at the Health Service Commission that paved the way for Ugwu to infiltrate the system? Were they bribed to look the other way? Or, was it just sloth? Were they simply too lazy to carry out proper due diligence?
Struggling Watchdogs, Failing Judiciary
What can we do, as citizens, if even the public sector’s medical watchdogs such as the NCDC have been infiltrated by quacks like Ugwu? If the public sector is compromised, then one can only shudder to imagine the killing spree in Nigeria’s poorly regulated private medical sector.
MDCN insists it is “fighting the good fight” but concedes it is struggling.
A major challenge, MDCN says, is that Nigeria’s judicial system appears to have been subverted. The MDCN currently has over 40 cases against accused quacks in courts across the country, but many of the cases are stalled and those that are finalised seldom result in quacks being punished. A senior MDCN official worries that even the ‘watertight’ evidence against Ugwu does not guarantee a credible trial, and that the police may also be compromised.
But, it isn’t just the authorities who are floundering. Ugwu’s case is already fading from media attention … with MDCN fearing that the case may be diluted to less serious charges or may even be scuttled completely once public attention has waned.
Citizen Self-help: Dodgy Doctors 2
SaharaReporters and Code for Nigeria have therefore taken up the challenge and will be building a second set of additional tools that will help citizens check that their doctor is, in fact, the person whose name they’re using.
“We’re working with MDCN to allow citizens to check the photo ID for doctors, so that identity theft becomes much, much harder,” explains Adeoye.
SaharaReporters is also launching a series of investigations into specific cases of suspected quackery, to expose other possible techniques used by the con-artists.
“SaharaReporters is excited about this initiative because it empowers Nigerians to research whether their doctors are frauds. These tools will also contribute to our investigations as we continue to hunt down individuals placing the public at risk,” Galvin says.
Watch this space. We’ll be bringing you developments as they happen.
Justin Arenstein is the executive director for the Code for Africa federation, which includes the new Code for Nigeria. SaharaReporters has partnered with Code for Nigeria to build a range of digital and data journalism projects, to help empower citizens by providing them with data-driven tools to make evidence based decisions.