Every year, Nigerian doctors meet all over the world in their organisations to find ways to inspire each other to engage more with Nigeria and support themselves in their various engagements. This year Chikwe Ihekweazu of Nigeria Health Watch attended the annual conference of the Association of Nigerian Physicians in the Americas (ANPA) which held in Florida, a popular holiday location in the USA. Here is his account of the event.
The energy in the room on the first day of the conference was palpable, as participants began arriving into Orlando. The USA is a vast country and travel is difficult, so for many of them this is the one occasion they get to meet each other and enjoy fellowship, as well as learn from each other. Listening to colleagues introduce themselves to each other and exchange warm greetings gave me an incredible sense of pride. In their midst were specialists from almost every aspect of medicine, managers of large healthcare programmes, private practitioners in large practices, resident doctors and even medical students, all sharing a common heritage as well as a commitment to Nigeria. Reports have it that there are about 5,000 Nigerian medical doctors currently practising in the United States alone, and this does not include second or third generation Nigerians.
The theme of this year’s conference, in line with current events in the world, was “Healthcare Delivery during Conflicts, Disasters and Epidemics”. Speakers were invited from across the spectrum, especially those that were involved in various aspects of the Ebola response in Nigeria. This included Professor Onyebuchi Chukwu, the former Minister of Health and Drs. Jide Idris and Sampson Parker who led the state response levels in Lagos and Rivers States. Also Drs. Benjamin Ohiaeri and Ada Ighonoh who worked at the First Consultants Medical Centre in Lagos, where patient zero in Nigeria, Patrick Sawyer, was managed. In addition to the speakers, also in attendance were the Medical Association of Nigerians Across Great Britain (MANSAG)’s leadership;- Dr. Jakob Akoh, and that of the Nigerian Medical Association, Dr. Kayode Obembe. Interestingly, the meeting was opened by anthropologist Adia Benton (PhD), who spoke about the political, economic and social aspects of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Her talk challenged conventional wisdom on how we think about outbreaks, and reminded the audience on how important the context always is, drawing on both historical and contemporary examples.
Professor Chukwu gave an account of his leadership during the Ebola outbreak, recollecting many difficult decisions he had to make, decisions he often felt did not win him many friends along the way. Still, he was widely applauded for his leadership during that period.
The most interesting talk from the first day was probably that delivered by Dr. Ben Nwomeh. Ben is a paediatric surgeon and professor of clinical surgery, but recently developed an interest in the use of social media to highlight issues he is passionate about. He reflected on how he used Twitter to challenge some of the misrepresentation, exaggeration and minimisation of facts during the peak of the Ebola outbreak. His tweet below, wondering about America’s hyper anxiety only when the outbreak hit its shores after more than a thousand people had died in West Africa, was re-tweeted over 7,000 times. His Twitter handle is @bnwomeh.
Dr. Ohiaeri of First Consultants Medical Centre took the audience through a passionate, heart wrenching talk, a narrative of the hour by hour, day to day experience of the events in July 2014, which he described as his “darkest hours in medical practice”. His talk brought to light the important role that a culture of strong clinical governance played in his hospital and how that influenced the hospital’s response to the Ebola outbreak. At several points through the talk, it was clear that Dr. Ohiaeri was holding back tears as he relived the harrowing experience, especially when he recounted losing four members of his staff. Later on, Dr. Ada Ighonoh, a young doctor at the hospital who survived Ebola, gave a personal account of how she survived and how she is using her second chance at life to prepare herself to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future.
The second day brought more highlights, especially the sessions on quality improvement. Dr. Nneka Mobisson Etuk delivered an excellent talk on using different approaches to drive quality improvement, especially the “driver diagramme”. Then Professor Temitope Alonge, University College Hospital (UCH) Ibadan’s Chief Medical Director, held the audience spell bound as he described the improvements that he had driven in UCH since he was appointed. He described his “3-D” approach: “Discuss with all the staff at UCH and ensure that they all buy into his Decision for a new Direction for UCH”. Seven models of “Private-Public Partnerships” have been introduced to UCH and these have transformed the first teaching hospital in Nigeria, creating many new and improved services for patients. These include a new laboratory with improved processes, the first Geriatric Centre in West Africa and a new open heart surgery unit, all done while improving patient outcomes, patient experiences and revenue generation in the hospital. The Nigeria Health Watch Team plans to pay a visit to UCH to learn more about this incredible transformation.
In between the sessions, the buzz was hard to miss. This was indeed a “conference for the converted”, despite the challenges of engaging with Nigeria. Doctors that stay engaged with ANPA are generally those actively seeking opportunities to engage with Nigeria. On the corridors of the conference, we met Dr. Chumy Nwogu, a cardiothoracic surgeon in Buffalo, who, together with colleagues recently set up a Cancer Centre in Lagos and Drs. Aham Onyike and Donald Ozumba, both surgeons who had set up a Specialty Surgical Centre in Lagos. These are only two examples of colleagues with innovative models of delivering care in Nigeria.
As always, the conference ended with a much anticipated gala. Colleagues, decked out in their absolute best, with spouses, older children and friends, ate and danced to some of the best music out of Nigeria. The camaraderie and joy of communion was palpable, and the conference ended on a high. The next time they gather will be in Los Angeles in July 2016. If you are a Nigerian doctor anywhere in the world and you can make it, this is one of the most family-friendly conferences you’ll find in the medical scene. If you are a Nigerian medical doctor in the USA and you do not prioritise this conference, I strongly suggest you reconsider. You will not regret it.
Conferences like this one are always a labour of love. This one was put together by a team ably led by the current ANPA President Dr. Nkem Chukwumerije, and included Ben Nwomeh and Ajovi Scott-Emuakpor, as well as other members of the executive committee. ANPA has an innovative approach of electing the next president one tenure ahead, so throughout the tenure of this executive, the next president, Johnson Adeyanju was already elected. We observed him sitting at the front during all the sessions, following proceedings and thinking about how to improve ANPA further when his tenure starts.
The role of organisations of Nigerian doctors as a force for good in Nigeria cannot be over emphasized. More than ever before, Nigeria needs their skills and their voice.