Senate president David Mark could not attend the ceremonial signing of this year's budget.
According to one of his aides, he was on medical tourism in Israel. He had earlier been treated for cases relating to his teeth and eye at the National Hospital, Abuja.
Less than a week later, the media reported the minister of health, Prof. Onyebuchi Nwosu, as saying that, thenceforth, public officers would not be allowed to travel for treatment that could be handled by medical institutions in Nigeria.
While it is unknown if taxpayers would foot Mark's bill, the minister's statement is both intriguing and revolutionary, considering the fact that one of his predecessors, Prof Babatunde Osotimehin, once valued the losses Nigeria incured on medical tourism at $200million per annum.
While public servants have a right to choose their medicare, it is not right for people entrusted with maintaining medical facilities in the country to pass such expenses over to the public. We suggest that Onyebuchi's ban list should include all elected and appointed government officials in the presidency and the National Assembly.
Public officers should not use public funds to finance their fancies. We should fix the country's infrastructure and engender professionalism in the health sector to discourage wealthy and not-so-wealthy Nigerians from travelling abroad for medical help. Are Nigeria's over 160 tertiary medical institutions so unhealthy for our public officers?
Since it has been established that some unscrupulous Nigerian doctors make a fortune from their ambiguous referrals to foreign hospitals, we hope the minister and all health regulatory agencies would dig deeper and unearth the bad eggs in their midst.
Available statistics have shown that no fewer than 3,000 Nigerian patients travel abroad for medical tourism monthly and, out of the number, about 1,000 are mis-diagnosed. Many have also met grim death after some complicated heart surgeries on their flight back to Nigeria.
From the critical to the mundane, the number of people travelling for medical attention has increased over the years. A disheartening fad is that many go abroad to be delivered of babies, when Nigeria has some of the best gynaecologists in the world. Ditto for most other specialties our people go abroad to consult. Indeed, many of them are Nigerians forced by fortuitous circumstances to join the bandwagon of brain drain.
We challenge the minister and the government to walk their talk, change the hospitals and make them return to their respectable status and not mere consulting clinics without water, drugs and equipment. The country has to make concerted effort to upgrade its health-care facilities to the standard that would attract patronage from patients outside Nigeria as well.
This is imperative if we are to achieve the numbers 4, 5 and 6 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) come 2015 as well as benefit from the estimated $20 billion market in medical tourism, which is also expected to hit $100 billion by 2020.