The Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole, Saturday explained the rationale behind President Muhammadu Buhari's preference for medical treatment abroad, saying it was to protect the president's privacy as the country has remained unable to manage information.
Using the travail of Yusuf, the only son of Buhari, who was involved in a motorbike crash last year in Abuja, as an example, he said it was obvious that the privacy of a patient could easily be compromised in the country.
Adewole, who spoke in a telephone interview with THISDAY, said the president's preference for foreign medical care was, however, not an indictment of the nation's health system, adding that Buhari was committed to uplifting the sector to a standard that every Nigerian would be proud of.
"You have forgotten that as our president, he is also an individual. Unfortunately, we still, as a country, we cannot handle information. The president's son was operated; they said he was dead. You see, it is a strange country; and so, we do not respect people's right to privacy and confidentiality. We also have no respect for doctor-patient relationship," the minister said.
Adewole's intervention is, perhaps, the clearest and most tangible explanation for Buhari's frequent medical trips abroad in spite of huge budgetary allocations to the State House Medical Centre, dedicated to the exclusive use of the president, his family and personal aides, including ministers, advisers, assistants and State House support staff. The best heard before now, from his media aides, Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu, was that it was the right of the president to seek medical treatment wherever he wished, while neglecting to disclose his ailment on the ground that it was only the president that could reveal it.
Adewole had toed this line of argument in an interview on Friday on a Lagos-based television network, saying Buhari was entitled to keeping the cause and nature of his ailment to himself.
But he moved the discussion forward yesterday when he offered more insights into the president's inclination to foreign medical care, explaining that it was because the president wanted to guard his privacy, suggesting it was necessitated by the need to protect his medical records from leaking to unauthorised quarters. He insisted that the president, as an individual, deserved some privacy, which should be respected and that the constant probing into his medical tourism in Britain was not helping matters.
Adewole, however, assured Nigerians that in spite of Buhari's preference for foreign treatment, the president's belief in the country's health system was very strong. He said this was why, in spite of pressures from family and relatives, the president insisted Yusuf must be, and was indeed, treated in Nigeria.
"The same person who went abroad was the same person who said, let my son be managed in Nigeria. I was at the centre; people said let the boy be flown abroad. The president said no. All he asked was, 'Can they manage him in Nigeria?' I said, yes, and he said, 'Go ahead,'" Adewole said.
He pleaded that the president be left alone, urging that his right of choice of medical facility be respected. "So, let's not over flog it. To me, it's a non-issue," he said.
Adewole insisted that Buhari's preference for foreign medical care was not an indictment of the nation's health care system, contending that the president was committed to upgrading the sector.
"He is committed to improving the health sector, and working hard to make it something everybody would be proud of," he said, adding, "But you know doing this would not happen overnight."
The minister explained that because of the complexities of procurement in the sector, things had to be properly done.
According to him, "Like the upgrade we are doing for cancer, it has taken us almost one year because things have to be properly done. It is not like going to a shop to buy a shoe. You know if you don't have a shoe, you walk to Wuse market and in the next 30 minutes, you can buy a shoe. You can't buy a radiotherapy machine if there is no proper assessment.
"So upgrading the health facility, he is committed to that. But it's not going to happen immediately. And we are working hard to make sure that things are in proper shape.
Buhari, who returned from yet another medical sojourn abroad on Friday night, had been under intense criticism for failing to disclose his ailment while using public funds to seek medical help abroad even as public health institutions are down on their knees.