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NIGERIA: Orji Has Made Medical Tourism Attractive in Abia Says Okechukwu Ogar

Okechukwu Samuel Ogar Abia State Commissioner for Health and eminent Consultant Cardiologist has been the driving force behind Governor Theodore Orji’s quest in turning Abia state to a medical tourist destination. Ogar took time off his busy schedule to explain to Emma Ugwu how the Jewish business philosophy of minimum inputs and maximum returns has offered the citizens of the state a healthcare sector that gives cause for cheer
 
What were the challenges on your assumption of office?
I was first appointed Commissioner for Health September 2010 prior to my position as Consultant Cardiologist at the University College Hospital (UCH).  I had left the shores of Abia 17 years earlier on this journey and it was good coming home to serve. On assumption of office, I realised the problems on ground in the health sector were not peculiar to the state. However, on a comparative note, we had an edge over many other states considering our good network of hospitals inclusive of our teaching hospital  and a Federal Medical Centre. The game plan was to exploit this advantage and use it as a spring board for evolving a 21stcentury medical tourism state; our template included locating a General Hospital that would meet the national standard in each LGA with primary health care clinics in the 291 political wards in tandem with the national health policy, a target we have long exceeded.
 
Orji’s MDG Programme
His Excellency Governor Theodore Ahamefule Orji used the MDG programme to put in place over 200 health care centres.  An Indian company Me-Cure Diagnostics, in a PPP project with the state government built a Specialist Hospital in Umuahia equipped with CTI, MRI, Digital Radiography and laboratory facilities as well as the Teaching Hospital in Aba. The emphasis has always been to develop ultra-modern diagnostic centres in the state capital and the commercial town of Aba commissioned last July by the Minister of Health, Prof. Onyebuchi Chukwu. The centre in Umuahia now has a dialysis sector for patients with renal problems and conducts medical tests of various magnitudes for a varied number of complex ailments.
The problem at inception was expectedly one of infrastructure decay, some of the hospitals were there before the war and some came on stream in the 1970s, all in different states of decadence. The primary health centres even after being equipped needed to be populated with well trained medical personnel.  The General Hospitals were also suffering from inadequate distribution of manpower especially in the hinterland. By and large, we have provided the relevant medical facilities and the progression continues
 
What did you do?
We started with the renovation of existing secondary health care facilities before proceeding with the primary health sector at the LGAs as a complement to the efforts of the Federal Government. The strategy was one of revival, renovation, expansion and re-designation beginning with the Amachara General Hospital, then the Ohafia General Hospital, a strategic hospital in the South of Abia, down to other general hospitals. We had hospitals for mother/child aimed at reducing mother and child mortality rate while setting up a best practice immunisation structure, encouragement of breast-feeding, provision of adequate nutrition, clean water, basic sanitation, oral de-hydration therapy and family planning with Aba taking the lead. Our aim is to ensure access to appropriate and quality healthcare services to children at all levels.
Still in the area of primary health, over 200 health centres, have been built across 17 LGAs. Many of them have been furnished while others are yet to be fully equipped.
The Government has also upgraded the Amachara General Hospital in Umuahia to a specialist hospital with corresponding facilities. Chevron in partnership with other oil firms- FAMFA, Statoil and Petrobras built an ultra modern Chest Clinic inside the premises fitted with state-of-the-art facilities and has since opened to the public.
We have also embarked on the construction of eight 100-bed hospitals in nine LGAs including Arochukwu, Okeikpe, Ohafia, Umuahia, Ikwuano, Aba, covering the three senatorial districts just as the emphasis on training and personnel build up has necessitated the construction of a big lecture theatre at the Abia State University Teaching Hospital (ABSUTH) to accommodate more medical students.  There are two tertiary hospitals, the Federal Medical Center in Umuahia and the Abia State University Teaching Hospital in Aba, which serve as referral hospitals in the state.
As His Excellency Governor Theodore Orji stated in his 2014 budget address, Government is committed to ensuring quality health delivery to the citizenry and this is because we are already aware of the critical health concerns and targets in the MDG goals. Based on these, the emphasis is to sustain efforts in equipment procurement, renovation and upgrading of some of the healthcare institutions in the state through the on-going transformation of structures in the health sector.
Renovation work of the Abia is also on ground for the School of Nursing/Midwifery, Aba General Hospital, and the General Hospital/Leprosy Centre in Uzuakoli. We have also completed action on the process for commencement of Abia State Health Insurance Scheme. This scheme which ensures growth in the general well-being of our citizens is aimed at the improvement in the quality of lives of the people.
                                                                                                
How about funding?
It has all along been a very expensive business but we had to go ahead with it and this also meant our over 250 health centres needed the right staff with the right salary package comparable with what was obtainable at the federal government level, and adequately distributed across the states. The idea was to put a plug at migration to federal medical centres. The game plan turned out to be a resounding success.
 
Have you reduced the traffic for referral cases abroad?
There are illnesses which need genuine treatment abroad primarily because there are no options for such treatments and this has always milked the government to the extent that malaria treatment overseas attracted estacode until government at the centre put a stop to this excessive medical tourism. Here in Abia, our medical facilities have been so upgraded that we have minimum consideration for overseas sponsorships like heart related diseases requiring a by-pass.  At least over 80 percent of complex cases have no reason to be treated abroad.  Cases like high blood pressure, cataract, exhaustion et al can be handled here. Healthcare provision is an expensive business but must be provided and that is what the Theodore Orji administration has been able to do for the people of Abia State these past five years because he knows not everyone will have the opportunity to be flown abroad. I must say medical tourism outside the shores of the country is not healthy for us as a people.
The other aspect the governor has invested so much on is in drug administration and dispensation. We early in the day established a central drug store located in Umuahia with some partnership coming from Neimeth and Emzor, an arrangement that allows them to store their drugs here while the hospital management buys from them on behalf of the ministry, minimising the incidence of fake drugs with a constant tab by the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria.
 
What is the state of your Infectious Diseases Hospital?
The extent of the health and medical revolution here is such that there is hardly a case of leprosy on record. We have also successfully combated cholera outbreak in some parts of the state especially in the north most prominently Aba, where water-borne diseases could have created such an epidemic. The war against non-communicable diseases was brought to the fore by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which identified it as a global issue and this included hypertension, chronic lung diseases, diabetes and risk factors. In Abia we did a survey of non-communicable diseases and how to tackle each case. We have a boundary with six states in the South east and Aba being a thriving commercial city in the sub-region of West Africa, is paying the price of HIV/AIDS epidemic, which over the years under Governor Orji has been drastically reduced through the State Action Committee on Aids (SACA), which is directly supervised by the office of His Excellency. We keep educating the people through churches, the electronic media and women programmes on the dangers of HIV/AIDS.
We have remained faithful in the payment of all the counterpart funds that concern the HIV/AIDS programme that is run in the state and for other health agencies that have anything to do with AIDS.
 
How are you executing your health enlightenment campaigns?
Each LGA has a health education unit where all the environmental health offices have been strengthened with experienced and dedicated health workers and the emphasis here is on health education and sanitation. Of course we have also invested resources on research with a road map whose emphasis is on secondary health care while strengthening our primary, tertiary health sector.  In Abia 60 percent of healthcare facilities is owned by private individuals in partnership with the state government. The partnership arrangement extends to such global institutions as the WHO, UNICEF, IPEAS, Society for Family Healthcare, all providing assistance for our primary health care programmes and the rehabilitation of our health systems
 
How has this impacted positively on citizens?
I was called to service and the mission has been to develop a strong, healthcare system where quality and efficiency is the watchword. I can tell you that here in Abia, the people can go and get what they want, not necessarily in terms of free medical care but an effective, efficient and affordable service to the people.

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