A nurse in a room with empty hospital beds

As the Coronavirus pandemic sparks global lockdowns, India and other top destinations for medical tourism by Nigerians are feeling the impact as patients billed for surgeries in the South Asian country are cancelling their plans and seeking care at home, SaharaReporters has learnt.

Medical value travel, which includes patients travelling to India for treatment, is estimated to be $3bn market for India. India has banned all domestic and international commercial flights to contain the spread of Coronavirus.

With no alternative, Nigerian patients billed for elective and emergency surgeries in India and other developed countries are changing their plans and seeking care at home.

The list includes influential Nigerians, top government functionaries and politicians, who patronise foreign hospitals for medical care.

In separate interviews with Nigerian medical doctors on how the pandemic was affecting medical tourism, SaharaReporters gathered that private hospitals were witnessing more patronage as doctors recommend care at home to patients, who had planned to get medical services abroad.

“Even here in Maiduguri, some surgeries have been suspended. Those patients cannot travel abroad now because of the lockdown. Some can’t eat while some can’t pass stool,” a doctor at the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital told SaharaReporters on Wednesday.

Thousands of miles away in India, stakeholders in the healthcare sector are feeling the heat; they are worried about the loss this portends for the Indian economy.

"The geographies from where our patients arrive – Africa, Central Asia and most of West Asia – are still in early stages of Coronavirus.

“There, the cycle may last even longer as they started late. Thus, to expect business to start back in one month is a distant dream," Dr Abhik Moitra, President of HBG Medical Assistance, one of the medical tourism industry players, told IndiaTimes in a recent interview.

Moitra predicted the industry would suffer heavily for the next six months and may take even longer for patients to find the courage to travel again to India.

A medical doctor at the National Hospital, Abuja, who spoke with SaharaReporters on the condition of anonymity, believes there was nothing to worry about as Nigerian patients needing emergency care can still get quality medical services at home.

He said, “There are different categories of medical intervention that people may need. Let’s say the Nigerian airport was functional, they (patients) just get into an air ambulance and are moved out of the country.

“With this lockdown that may be a bit difficult. But, there are just a few emergencies that cannot be attended to in Nigeria, especially in Abuja and Lagos.

“These two cities have hospitals that are equipped to handle any kind of emergency, except vascular surgeries, renal transplant and some cardiology procedures. Sometimes, the hospitals bring in those doctors to come and perform those surgeries in Nigeria.

“There are just a few emergencies that may take the life of a person because we don’t have those services in Nigeria. Those who go abroad, who have paid for surgeries and other expenses, might suffer but then generally, emergencies and surgeries can be done in Nigeria, especially Abuja and Lagos.”

Professor of Orthopaedic and Trauma Surgery, and immediate past President of the Nigerian Medical Association, Mike Ogirima, shed more light on the challenges and how it was impacting the health system in Nigeria while speaking with SaharaReporters.

He said, “We classify surgery into two: emergency and elective surgeries. Elective surgeries can wait till the condition improves and while waiting; we use the waiting period to prepare the patients. Those should wait until after the lockdown.

“For the emergency, you treat every patient that comes to you as an emergency as if they are positive and that we have been doing with patient with other infectious diseases that need surgery. Of course, affluent patients may elect to seek the second option outside the country and except that patient has a visa, it takes time and still boils down to elective surgery, which can still wait. I can’t think of any surgery that can’t be done in the country now. Any emergency surgery that is needed in this country can be carried out to save the lives of the patient.”

Ogirima said he hoped that the health system after COVID-19 pandemic would improve, adding that the inability of patients to travel abroad now should encourage government to transform Nigeria’s healthcare.

The ex-NMA President said it was obvious that Nigeria was not prepared for the pandemic.

He added, “All our advocacy shouts have not yielded results as many state governments have not been listening to advice from professional groups.  With what we have seen, Nigerians know that we don’t have enough capacity, in terms of resources, funding, human resources and equipment; we are way down the ladder.

“Apart from getting more primary healthcare centre functional, all state governments should be more responsive to their citizens.

“The idea of having general hospitals in those days, which are the secondary level of healthcare, has been abandoned by the state government.

“Everybody now leaves the rural areas, jumping the referral system, straight to the tertiary healthcare centres, which are the teaching hospitals or federal medical centres owned by the federal government. This should not be so.”

Other doctors, who spoke with SaharaReporters, advised patients unable to travel abroad owing to the lockdown to discuss with their doctors in Nigerians as they might be able to recommend other people to do those procedures in the country.

“There are doctors who can do renal transplant and neurosurgery. It’s about getting information from your Nigerian doctor and you‘ll be referred to the appropriate hospitals, which, most times, are private facilities. 

“Some of these hospitals have in-house expatriates from India, Pakistan, and other countries that are here in Nigeria,” a doctor at the National Hospital said.

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