Face to face with Nigeria’s ailing emergency health system: One daughter’s story

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If any organized emergency ambulance service exist in Nigeria, then we must do better with sharing the information on how they can be reached. Photo credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Editor’s Note: This week’s blog comes from a Nigeria Health Watch team member. She writes about coming head to head with the challenges facing Nigeria’s health system during her father’s recent health emergency. Her father is recuperating but the experience led her to think deeply about Nigeria’s emergency healthcare system and what must be done to improve it.

In two days, I learnt that you might never really understand the extent of Nigeria’s challenges until the Nigerian health system is all you have to rely on. My father fell ill suddenly and every step of his ‘care’ made more glaring the challenges that face us as a country.

My father is barely 60-years-old and has had a relatively healthy life, save for a sudden kidney failure followed by a transplant when he was 53. While that experience was excruciating for us, his management in a hospital in India made it all better for his caregivers — my mother especially. The system was smooth, we knew what we had to pay for and at what point. I recall my mother telling us that the doctors offered to record or live stream his transplant surgery so she could be part of the process. This was in December 2011.

Fast-forward to six and a half years later- we were all sound asleep when suddenly, my father had trouble breathing. And there we encountered our first challenge: We had to get him to a hospital. It was early in the morning, and we did not have access to any ambulance services. If any organized emergency ambulance service exist in Nigeria, then we must do better with sharing the information on how they can be reached. Maybe if we were in Lagos, we would have been able to access the state’s 112 service. Also, how many states in Nigeria have rapid response ambulance services for people? And how many of those services actually work optimally?

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It is time to define the policy on providing emergency care in public hospitals in Nigeria. Photo credit: Nigeria Health Watch

We decided to take my father to the closest hospital to us, given the emergency. However, we could not actually afford the services of the closest hospital and had to choose the “second closest”. In the past, we had used this hospital which has grown very quickly in the last two years to one of the most popular private hospitals in Nigeria — known to serve the wealthy. At our previous visit, we had gone in for a minor procedure and did not have to empty our bank accounts. Back then, we watched as hospital attendants refused to move an accident victim from the emergency ward to the Intensive Care Unit because he could not afford to pay for his care.

This got me thinking: How long do Nigerians have to depend on out of pocket payments for healthcare? How many Nigerians have health insurance to cater for their health needs, especially during emergencies? How many health insurance providers offer retail services where retired citizens like my father can get an individual plan? How well are these services publicised so the public is aware? How far has the campaign for Universal Health Coverage (UHC) gone in its implementation? The questions are plenty and I am hoping the answers will come soon.

We finally got to a government hospital about 10 minutes from where we live. This is one of the three tertiary healthcare facilities in the country’s capital. Thankfully, on arrival, we were provided with a wheelchair and a nurse to push my father into the emergency ward. It was at this point that what I thought would be the biggest shock came. The nurses would not check what the problem with him, a patient who could not breathe, was, until an initial deposit was made. Thankfully, my mother had just enough cash at hand to pay. Taking away compassion, aren’t there any laws or policies around providing emergency care in Nigeria? I recall a related story earlier this year, where it was reported that Lassa Fever patients had to pay for care. While the treatment drugs are free, they reportedly had to pay for the bed space, tests and other management provided to them. What happens to those who are unable to afford these? Are they rejected or left to add to the increasing mortality from diseases in Nigeria? Asides gunshot victims, shouldn’t a law also be in place for unconscious patients? Those infected with epidemic-prone diseases?

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We need a better-managed payment and drug purchase systems in our hospitals. Photo credit: Nigeria Health Watch

We were finally attended to by the doctors on duty, who looked like they could do with some rest. An oxygen tank was provided, and his breathing thankfully returned to normal. The next steps included the series of tests that had to be conducted. I recall a chest x-ray, an ECHO, urea test and a few others. I was given about five to six different sheets of paper. I asked the nurse if this was for only my dad, or if it included other people’s bills, but she snickered and said; “go and pay”. Well, I took the papers and went to what I understood was the cash point. However, I was given my papers back and in one minute, the cashier outlined all the places I had to go to “cost” the items.

Apparently, before you pay for any service — test, drugs, x-rays, you must take the paper to cost. As my father had a urine test, an x-ray and some drugs included, I had to go to at least three different places to cost the items. Each spot had its own queue and it did not matter if it was an emergency — you had to join a long queue to cost, another long queue to pay and the final long queue to collect your drugs, lab test bottle or whatever you needed at the time. Need I mention that none of the payment points had a Point of Sale machine (POS) throughout the period we were there. Clearly, we need a better-managed payment and drug purchase systems in our hospitals. While it may be argued that this redundant system of payment may reduce the so-called “risk” of theft in the hospital, it is definitely not the most effective solution for any patient or their caregivers.

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Technology has been able to permeate various sectors in Nigeria but unfortunately, not the health sector. Photo credit: Nigeria Health Watch

In the eight days we spent at the hospital, there were continually more reasons for my family and I to lose faith in the healthcare system. At some point, the Consultant came in and made us realise the medical officers had not taken enough details of my father’s condition in his case notes. This meant she could not make an informed enough decision on whether to discharge him or not. In addition, the doctors did not communicate effectively with any of us about his illness and the treatment plan he was placed on. All we really wanted to know was the problem in clear simple terms. There was often a gap in communication. What this meant was sometimes, we had five different doctors or nurses writing those long lists of different items and we had to go to different points for costing, payment and collection, which, apart from prescription drugs, included miscellaneous items such as surgical gloves, a thermometer and syringes.

There are obviously so many problems with healthcare delivery in Nigeria. However, what is most irksome is that these problems have simple, solvable solutions; solutions that can easily be implemented but require proper leadership and management. I was at an event recently where it was once again emphasised that young people must begin to think of solutions to the problems in Nigeria. Therefore, I offer these to the leaders and players of our health sector:

  1. Stop the ambiguity — It is time to define the policy on providing emergency care in public hospitals in Nigeria. Do patients have to pay before treatment or not?
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Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

In line with the Patients’ Bill of Rights developed by the Consumer Protection Council and launched by the Vice President Prof. Yemi Osibanjo on Tuesday, July 31, 2018, healthcare providers must ensure that a patient’s right to seeking and obtaining quality healthcare is respected and protected. This includes the right to relevant information in an easily understandable manner, right to timely access to accurate medical records and right to decline care, subject to prevailing laws and upon full disclosure of the consequences of such a decision among other rights.

Have you had any experiences with Nigeria’s emergency care system? We would love for you to share your experiences with us.

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We use informed advocacy and communication to influence health policy and seek better health and access to healthcare in Nigeria. nigeriahealthwatch.com

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