Jacob Ako, President of the Medical Association of Nigerians across Great Britain (MANSAG), spoke to Corporate Africa about the Association’s efforts to improve health services in Nigeria.
Could you explain what the Medical Association of Nigerians across Great Britain (MANSAG) is all about and what role it has been playing in the UK?
MANSAG was formed in 1997 to carry out health related activities in Nigeria. The association aims at improving health delivery in Nigeria, and provides networking opportunities for its members. Apart from building skills among Nigerians doctors residing in the UK, we also work to improve health care delivery in Nigeria. We have devised a strategy to achieve that.
What sort of skills and competences do your members here in the UK have?
We have members with a wide range of expertise and experience. We have consultants and doctors with solid experience serving in leadership positions and also fresh graduates. We also have members who are managers, chief executives, as well as medical and clinical directors.
Do you also have general practitioners and surgeons in your association?
Yes we have general practitioners; I am a surgeon myself. We have all levels of surgeons in the medical field. Totally there are 5,000 Nigerians doctors in the UK. However, not all of them are members of MANSAG. In spite of that we have access to them whenever we need doctors to do particular tasks. We have built strong links with the British Medical Association, the General Medical Council and other groups in the UK; we meet with them from time to time to discuss projects. We have also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Health in Nigeria.
What strategies have you put in place to improve the delivery of health services in Nigeria?
Let me try to answer that from a global perspective. We have established contacts with other countries to improve the health system in Nigeria. We are determined to deliver better health service in our home country by educating stakeholders in the health sector including people involved in the health system – those who provide the service and those who benefit from the service.
We want to bring all the skills and technology available to our health system. Our ambition is to engage in the debate about the future of health care delivery in Nigeria and to work in partnership with other associations. We share the same vision with all those who strive to build better health system in Nigeria.
We want to be in a position to influence decision makers, people who have impact in Nigeria’s health service. Now how do we achieve that? First, we have a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Health. That allows us to be involved in high level decision making in terms of what is appropriate, what is necessary and how that can be achieved in the health sector. We recently prepared curriculum that will be used to train healthcare workers. We also played a leading role in drafting a national guideline for medical missions in Nigeria.
Do those missions include hospitals and consultancy firms?
Yes, things are being done and recorded properly to find out where we can improve. Unlike the UK, where regulation and accountability of clinical work is very strong, that is not the way it works in Nigeria. One of the key things in terms of education that I mentioned before is a training week program which we now started.
Under this program, many MANSAG specialists go to different institutions to train residents in their fields. That week will include training within the Surgical Gynaecology, Oncology, INT, Medical Neurology and much more. We have Nigerian specialists in the UK. They provide us with demonstrations and high quality training throughout the training week. This is one of the ways that we are trying to build capacity. There are many projects, and a lot of efforts are being made to achieve our goals.
Who finances those projects? Do you get any financial support from other medical associations in Nigeria?
For the training week, the cost is covered by the hosting institutions. Those institutions provide accommodation, security and food for our specialists throughout that period.
You have already mentioned some of the infectious diseases you plan to address during the training week. Do you share your expertise in prevention and care of those diseases across Africa?
Let me first say few words about stroke which I didn’t touch upon earlier. There is high rate of stroke in Nigeria. Not many people with the disease are aware that they have it. And within some communities it is thought that those people who have the disease are attacked by the Devil.
Last year MANSAG developed a memorandum of understanding for action to address the high rate of stroke in Nigeria. To address this matter, we are going to have a Walk or Run in May this year, so individuals will participate in the MANSAG program to raise awareness about stroke. This program will take place both in the UK and in Nigeria. Also Charity Bald will support our campaign against stroke.
I have been organising a Nigerian Stroke Reference Group. This group will be endorsed by the Nigeria Federal Government and will be fostering development. With this group we want to create awareness about the disease and also to provide facilities for people with the disease. Regarding Malaria, we need to come up with a particular way of raising awareness about the disease and many more diseases. Malaria is going to be our next big challenge, after stroke. The other area that we want to engage in is mental illness.
You have explained what your association has been doing in Nigeria. But how about your work in the UK, works that benefit Nigeria indirectly? Are your members involved in telemedicine for instance?
Our primary focus is Nigeria. However, we are trying to find a way to replicate our work in the UK. eEducation in Telemedicine is one area we are discussing with the Nigerian Investors Commission. The Association and Nigerian medical professionals are very keen in being involved in this project. Last year, we had a meeting on how to benefit from telemedicine. Unfortunately, things have not advanced since.
Telemedicine is an area where we can improve people’s lives by training or helping them when they need advice. However, there has to be some government commitment as well in improving facilities and ICT infrastructure to make this project happen. Because we still have countries in Africa that have poor water supply. So I can say that these things can be done when it is possible to do them; when there is a conducive environment.
Do you think that public private partnerships can help in advancing the agenda of Telemedicine?
Yes, there has to be commitment on the government’s part to provide power for the public. Regarding public private partnerships, there is a company called the American Hospital Limited with which we entered into a partnership agreement this year.
We help them recruit manpower from the UK, specifically MANSAG members. Initially they want to source about 60 percent of their staff from our association to improve the standard of the hospital they are building. They want to build a high standard health facility, similar to those in the UK and the US. Our association gives them a helping hand as we are committed to build capacity in Nigeria.
The health systems of some countries in West Africa have been seriously affected by the Ebola outbreak. Will your association support efforts to rebuild the health systems by deploying your experienced professionals?
Yes and no. The Ebola crisis has shown that many African countries are unprepared because they are not investing enough in their health systems. This is a serious challenge to the growth of the health sector.
I believe that efforts should be made to improve capacity when a country is in crisis. The first thing we need to do is to convince leaders to provide adequate facilities for their people. A country needs to build and improve its health system to cover an eventuality of a major disaster.
You have explained very clearly your partnership with the Nigerian Health Ministry and other stakeholders there. How sustainable are those partnerships?
When I became President of the Association, my main goal was to work very hard and to fulfil my promises. We have a joint technical committee that reviews progress and deals with our plans to ensure development. I think in a way that’s what health is. If certain things are achieved, hopefully we are going to continue the momentum and achieve even more. It requires a lot of hard work to ensure that promises are kept.
Are there any points you would like to add?
Yes, MANSAG is also involved with the European-wide African Diaspora Platform for Development in collaboration with African Foundation Development. Its purpose is to discuss ideas of how we can help Africa. The program is related with engineering and all global facilities to develop Africa.