Nigeria must tackle its doctor brain drain

By Eromo Egbejule, in Lagos
Posted on Thursday, 25 April 2019 13:07

Poor pay, lack of equipment and a dearth of opportunities is sending Nigerian doctors abroad. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

Nigeria’s minister of labour, Chris Ngige, has caused a furore by denying that Nigeria has a medical brain-drain problem.

The minister, a trained medical doctor himself, said on national television that the country has a surplus of doctors:

“We have surplus. If you have surplus, you export… Who said we don’t have enough doctors? We have more than enough. You can quote me. There is nothing wrong in them travelling out. When they go abroad, they earn money and send them back home here. Yes, we have foreign exchange earnings from them and not just oil.”

According to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, doctors cost an African country between $21,000 and $51,000 to train. Nigeria is one of nine countries who have lost more than $2bn since 2010 training doctors who then migrate.

Meanwhile countries like the UK benefit. With one in 10 doctors working in the UK coming from Africa, the country saves around $2.7bn by recruiting these doctors.

Ever-faster brain drain

And the Nigerian medical brain drain is accelerating. Prompted by a comment from former Commonwealth secretary-general Emeka Anyaoku, Africa Check revealed that the UK had 5,250 Nigerian-trained doctors on its books in April 2018, a rise of 10% on the previous year. That is an average of 12 doctors a week fleeing to the UK. A recent NOI poll showed that 88% of Nigerian doctors are considering working abroad.

Other countries such as the US, Canada, Australia and South Africa are also attracting Nigerian doctors in droves, with Saudi Arabia aggressively recruiting in the country.

Why the exodus?

With its status as the poverty capital of the world and home to an estimated 13.2 million out-of-school children according to UNICEF, Africa’s most populous country is battling to keep the attraction going for its citizens. In September 2017, its economy marginally exited its first recession in over two decades and experts warn that it could yet dip again.

  • Nigerian state-employed doctors earn as little as N150,000 ($416) a month, with top salaries for consultants rising to N800,000 a month – still way below what they could earn in Western countries.
  • Medical professionals are also frustrated at the lack of investment in the health sector, where a paucity of equipment and frequent strikes prevent them from doing their job to the best of their abilities. In 2019 only 3.6% of the annual budget of N8.8trn was allocated to health services.

No support from politicians

Contrary to what labour minister Ngige said, the country has not got a surplus of doctors – at least by global standards: the World Health Organisation recommends one doctor to 600 people. Health minister Isaac Adewole argues that at one doctor to 4088 people this is better than other African countries. He also made the facetious comment when questioned on the lack of residency placements for young doctors that “we can’t all be specialists… the man who sews my gown is a doctor. He makes the best gowns.”

  • The data cannot be ignored, however, that Nigeria has one of the worst health records in Africa, including the second highest population with HIV and the largest number of deaths from malaria. Although its has significantly reduced its maternal mortality rate since 1990, Nigeria’s is lagging behind other nations.
  • That Nigeria’s number one citizen, President Muhammadu Buhari, regularly jets to London for medical checks is a damning assessment on the state of the health sector. He too is unfazed by the brain drain: “Others who feel they have another country [to go to] may choose to go”, he said casually.

Bottom line: Only greater investment in health will reduce the brain drain of Nigerian doctors. This needs to start with an acknowledgement by the government that the brain drain is costing the country more than it benefits it in remittances.


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