Dr. Biodun Ogungbo is one of the most charismatic medical doctors you will ever meet. Except you are told, you may not know that he is world class and a UK registered specialist in Neurosurgery. He is also registered by the Nigerian Medical and Dental council as a specialist neurosurgeon. Trained in United Kingdom, the neurosurgeon spoke to AZUBUIKE OGBONNAYA recently on various issues about his area of specialty in medicine and health sector in Nigeria generally. Excerpt…
Who’s Biodun Ogungbo?
I am a consultant neurosurgeon and medical director of Brain and Spine Surgery Consortium Abuja. I started my secondary education at Jubril Martins Memorial Secondary School, Iponri, Lagos State and thereafter proceeded to St. Gregory’s College, Obalende for A levels and then to University of Lagos for my MBBS.
I did my Houseman-ship at the General hospital Abeokuta and my NYSC at General Hospital Ijebu-Ode. After NYSC, I went back to Lagos and worked with some private hospitals before I decided to go for postgraduate training in the United Kingdom, where I specialised in neurosurgery.
I had my training in what was called the Northern Deanery in England, which consisted of Newcastle General Hospital and Middleborough General hospital. At that time, you had to train at these two hospitals to get the complete training. After that I continued with my trainings and fellowships, I went for Vascular Fellowship at the Walton in Liverpool and Brain Tumor Surgery fellowship at the Western General in Edinburgh, Scotland. Once I completed my training and fellowships I decided to return to Nigeria.
Why the interest in Neurosurgery?
I actually traveled to train in trauma and orthopedics, but somewhere along the line fell into neurosurgery and everything else paled into insignificance. I was completely at home with it, quite happy and comfortable, something like yes, this is it, this is what I would be happy doing for the rest of my life.
I fell in love with Neurosurgery within two weeks of resuming a Locum at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford. There was Christopher Adams, an excellent and exceptional neurosurgeon. He made neurosurgery seem so easy and after two weeks of working in that unit I also thought it was easy because of the passion and interest.
I wake up these days and am very excited to go to work. Many times, I can’t wait for the day to break and see who is coming to consult me and what can I do to help. For me, it’s akin to being a detective, where you know that once you put the pieces together, you can get the full picture and if you have a picture then you will know exactly what you are doing. I find it very easy; hence it’s enjoyable and makes me love what I am doing a lot.
Returning Nigeria when others were going the other way?
I didn’t even have it in mind to travel out but at some point, while working in private practice, I realised I was not giving my best. Yes, you can go set up a hospital and start general practice but I think if one is honest, there are times when you know that you are out of your depth. Once I came to that conclusion, I decided that it was best I train as a specialist. Then, I knew I had to travel out for specialist training”.
My days at National Hospital
It’s mixed feelings when I remember my days at the National hospital. I had a very interesting seven months at the National Hospital. I would say it was both fascinating and frustrating in the same breath. But I was only able to withstand the frustration for seven months.
I knew what I wanted to do and for neurosurgery, especially when you have a patient, you can’t waste time while they are visibly deteriorating. Hence, it was always impossible and very painful for me to fold my hands and say we can’t do this or we can’t do that, because of so many different issues.
I honestly couldn’t continue that way. It was either I close my eyes to the way or reasons why patients were suffering or get out of the system and do it my way. So, it was better for my own sanity to practice neurosurgery my way.
If I want to operate on someone now, I can arrange it without sweating buckets. It’s not that I have to wait until it’s my own operating day next week or we can’t do it because something else is happening in the theatre. For me, my patients are number one priority. It doesn’t matter what else is going on.
At the National Hospital, I couldn’t tolerate not being able to operate when I want to because it impacts on the outcome. Outcome has always been and continues to be the most important thing. I go to International Conferences to present what I am doing and I need to stand up and say these are my results. And those results were dependent on getting good outcomes for patients.
There is no way that you will (go to the conference) and say we did this number of operations but all the patients died because of PHCN, because there was no ventilator, etc. You can’t stand and say that, so it was better for me to leave so I could create an environment that would give me the outcomes that I wanted for my patients.
All public medical facilities in Nigeria have the same narrative. Doctors are constantly working with limited resources and improvising.
Healthcare is Not Cheap
There must be leadership from the top and that commitment must translate into proper funding because healthcare is not cheap, especially tertiary healthcare.
No matter how rich you are, you will lose every penny if you have a prolonged health challenge. Even people who are extremely rich will be prepared to spend the last penny to get a good outcome from stroke or cancer.
Nobody can afford ill health. This is why we (Nigerians) need to get it to the consciousness of the government that they must invest in healthcare even if for the themselves in the first instance. They can even do it for selfish reasons; in case they fall sick but that’s being selfish in a positive way.
Instead of thinking I have enough money for my family and I can go abroad in case we fall sick. Because whatever they build locally will still make an impact on the whole nation. And truly in some medical emergencies the most valuable resource is time.
Some of his most challenging cases have been patients with brain tumors and strokes. ‘I have had cases of brain tumors in very delicate areas that require a different level of skill, expertise and equipment’. In many situations, we have had people that are in dire straits, that they can’t travel out (due to pain, disability or in coma). So, they need to have their operations done here and yet we cannot totally provide everything that they need in terms of personnel, equipment and that is frustrating.
Neurosurgery is teamwork, it doesn’t matter how skilled you are, even the cleaner, nurse, and physiotherapist or anesthetist can scupper the operation. You need to have a full team but that full team only matures with time and that’s the kind of journey we had. Particularly for people with horrible brain tumors and aneurysm. It has been challenging to look after them.
Nigerian healthcare has become a healthcare of improvisation because many times you don’t have the right set of equipment for certain procedures so you adapt what you have or is available.
More often than not you don’t have them because they are quite expensive and if you invest in them you might not recoup the investment. The cost of healthcare has so gone up astronomically that people can’t afford it but they still show up expecting to be given the best, first class care and it doesn’t work that way.
The way forward?
He has answer to some of the problems. ‘I think what we are hoping for is to start with primary healthcare. We must get that right. We must also make the National Health Insurance Scheme work.
Secondly, hundreds of Nigerian doctors working abroad are quite keen to come back home, but regardless of how well trained they are, if they don’t have access to patients, if they don’t have the right support, even with nurses or physiotherapists and other health care personnel, no matter how skilled they are, they will not be able to deliver the quality of care that they want to deliver.
Even if we start by ensuring that people have the right information. Empowering them. If we can get the basics right, if we can get our primary healthcare sorted, then a lot of things will fall into place. It is not so much about having big hospitals because we have had big hospitals that have failed actually especially in the public sector. Big hospitals with all the required equipment, expertise and manpower from abroad, with all the skill and expertise available that hospitals have failed and some have now closed down.
This is why in trying to reverse medical tourism, we must make sure that our primary and secondary healthcare facilities are properly sorted. Such that people who go to our tertiary healthcare facilities are people who deserve to be there. Otherwise, our big hospitals are busy treating malaria and Typhoid fever.
Confidence in Spine surgery and services
Almost all of our new patients come by way of referrals from old and or existing patients, because we are not allowed to advertise, so we only depend on the word of mouth referrals of satisfied patients and it’s encouraging to us to know that our work is appreciated enough for satisfactory referrals.
We also do audit and follow up on our patients even after one to two years to ask how they are. Every year we call up our patients with particular conditions and ask them how they are, and consistently we have found out almost all our patients will come back again to do the surgeries here with us if the need arises.
And these are people who have the means to travel abroad for their operations and treatments.
Too little or no allocation of 3.9% for health
This is just abysmal. This is why I say that government does not appreciate the value of our healthcare. They do not see it as a priority and until they do, we are not moving forward.
Giving waivers and engaging banks for low interest loans for hospitals are important but until it sits in their consciousness as a priority we won’t go anywhere with it. Another very big issue especially for private medical facilities is that the number of different government agencies seeking to tax hospitals is really worrisome.
It’s a very big issue; we have about ten different agencies asking for astronomical an amount that is making it almost impossible for us to provide affordable services to Nigerians. Mind you, private hospitals provide at least about sixty percent of healthcare services to Nigerians, so if the government is decimating them then they are only loading the public hospitals that cannot provide these services in the first place.
‘So, we are in a very big crisis, but it all boils down to the fact that we must find a way to get government to appreciate the importance of healthcare and its overall impact on the nation and that it should be their number one priority. It’s so vitally important’.