Dec 30 2015
There is a cancer eating Nigeria’s healthcare system from the inside. The Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria (MDCN) says large numbers of confidence tricksters or ‘quacks’ across the country are pretending to be doctors, without any medical training at all.
The parasites are motivated by money, charging unsuspecting patients for their ‘lifesaving’ services…but the real cost to Nigeria is calculated in human lives, with patients maimed or needlessly dying because of misdiagnosis and incorrect treatment.
“They are evil geniuses. Very elusive, and difficult to catch,” says the MDCN’s Inspectorate director, Dr. Henry Okwuokenye.
The new Dodgy Doctors service uses official MDCN data to help citizens quickly and easily check whether their doctor is properly registered, and whether they are in ‘good standing’ with the medical authorities.
“The toolkit is simple: it allows you to verify that your doctor is a licensed medical practitioner, and not some aspiring Nollywood actor,” explains Code for Nigeria strategist, Temi Adeoye. “All you need to do is type your doctor’s name in, and the service cross-checks it with the MDCN’s master registry.”
Code for Nigeria is a new civic technology and data journalism lab in Lagos, and is the local chapter of the Code for Africa federation. They jointly built the Dodgy Doctors tool for SaharaReporters, based on a similar successful one in Kenya. The Nigerian version is designed to protect citizens against con artists such as Nwosu Angela Njide, who was arrested in Abuja in September after allegedly masquerading as a medical doctor at the British American Tobacco Clinic in Ibadan, as well as the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital and finally at the Rauz Hospital in Abuja.
Njide is the first female arrested in Nigeria for impersonating a doctor, but she is not the only quack in the country. Femi Olabisi Akindele, for example, was arrested in Ogun State after a pregnant patient died while under his care. There are many similar cases, ranging from con artists ‘recklessly’ dispensing medicines, working at major hospitals, operating networks of their own illegal hospitals, or running ‘mobile surgeries’ from the back of their vehicles. The problem is also not just confined to Nigeria. South African authorities claimed in November that Anthony Nwafor has allegedly used fake Nigerian medical certificates in that country for nine years.
“People too often allow themselves to be victims, by relying on others to do background checks. The new Dodgy Doctors tool empowers citizens to proactively protect themselves against scamsters by running a simple two-minute check on MDCN’s database,” says SaharaReporters editor Declan Galvin.
It also allows users to immediately report ‘doctors’ whose names are not on the database as licensed practitioners, for follow-up by the MDCN’s Inspectorate and by SaharaReporters’ own investigative journalists.
“Citizens will be saving lives by sending information, because the tip-offs could help MDCN and investigative journalists expose quacks who are endangering innocent lives,” Galvin adds.
Both Adeoye and Dr. Okwuokenye warn, however, that databases such as the MDCN’s master registry are never perfect, and that instances where doctors aren’t listed need to be investigated before any ‘public lynching’ to ensure that the problem isn’t an administrative error.
“In fact, every doctor in Nigeria should themselves be proactive and should use the tool to check that MDCN has their information correctly registered,” says Adeoye.
But, Is It Enough?
Quacks are, as Dr. Okwuokenye says, often ‘evil geniuses.’ Nigeria’s public healthcare system is under-resourced, massively overstretched, and is vulnerable to people who want to subvert it.
MDCN believes that hundreds of particularly determined quacks have either tricked or bribed their way through the system, stealing documents or using other forms of identity theft to get licensed with health authorities even though they have no medical training.
The Ugwu Scandal
Dr. Martins Ugwu Okpe is the perfect example, says Dr. Okwuokenye. Ugwu worked at the very heart of the Federal Ministry of Health for nine years, under a procession of ministers, as a senior medical officer with the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). Ugwu rose to serve as a branch chairman of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), as well as on a government team that helped coordinate an African Union mission that combatted Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. He passed all routine civil-service reviews, biometric verifications, promotion assessments, and was well on his way to becoming an Assistant Director with the Ministry.
Enviable career, right?
It was, until an anonymous tip-off triggered a MDCN investigation that rocked Nigeria’s medical establishment, and exposed the 44-year-old as a con artist. The truth, MDCN says, is that Ugwu has only a secondary school certificate, with no medical training whatsoever. He stole a friend’s credentials in 2006 to secure a job as a medical doctor with Nigeria’s Health Service Commission (HSC), and rose through the ranks undetected.
Assigning blame is tough. Was it complicity or just culpable negligence on the part of recruiters at the HSC that paved the way for Ugwu to infiltrate the system? Were they bribed to look the other way? Or, was it just sloth? Were they simply too lazy to carry out proper due diligence? Dr. Okwuokenye believes the system fails at every one of these weak points.
Struggling Watchdogs, Failing Judiciary
So, what can we, as citizens, do if even the public sector’s medical watchdogs such as the NCDC have been infiltrated by quacks like Ugwu? If the public sector is compromised, then one can only shudder to imagine the killing spree in Nigeria’s poorly regulated private medical sector.
MDCN insists it is “fighting the good fight” but concedes it is struggling.
A major challenge, MDCN says, is that Nigeria’s judicial system appears to have been subverted. The MDCN currently has over 40 cases against accused quacks in courts across the country, but many of the cases are stalled and those that are finalized seldom result in quacks being punished. A senior MDCN official worries that even the ‘watertight’ evidence against Ugwu does not guarantee a credible trial, and that the police may also be compromised.
But, it isn’t just the authorities who are floundering. Ugwu’s case is already fading from media attention…with MDCN fearing that the case may be diluted to less serious charges or may even be scuttled completely once public attention has waned.
Citizen Self-help: Dodgy Doctors 2
SaharaReporters and Code for Nigeria have therefore taken up the challenge and will be building a second set of additional tools that will help citizens check that their doctor is, in fact, the person whose name they’re using.
“We’re working with MDCN to allow citizens to check the photo ID for doctors, so that identity theft becomes much, much harder. And, we will try, we will continue building new solutions for citizens every time we find a new hole that quacks and con artists are using to abuse the system,” explains Adeoye.
SaharaReporters is also launching a series of journalistic investigations into specific cases of suspected quackery, to expose other possible techniques used by the con artists.
“SaharaReporters is excited about this initiative, because it empowers ordinary Nigerians to research whether their doctors are frauds. These tools also improve our ability to hunt down individuals who place the public at risk,” Galvin says.