Advertising in healthcare remains a subject of debate in Nigeria, yet policy revision is needed.
The health profession has always been regarded as noble profession from time immemorial and this is the reason why parents and the society in general take a lot of pride when their ward graduates and becomes a health professional. Being regarded as noble and also being the cynosure of all eyes have no doubt affected the way that certain things are done by people in the field. One of the areas that have continued to be a subject of discussion is the issue of advertising by health professionals.
Being a noble profession means practitioners are expected to be modest in their dealings and these translate to not advertising themselves or making disparaging remarks about the works of other colleagues. According to Dr. Anyika Fidelis, a consultant Ophthalmologist in Owerri, Imo state capital, it would be chaotic if every health professional or hospital takes to any suitable media outlet to advertise. He rather advised that they should let their work do the advertising for them.
“If you are good, your work will speak for you and your patients will direct others to you,” he said.
Another reason why allowing hospitals and health professionals to advertise in Nigeria is restricted is the issue of preposterous claims. There are already several instances of individuals claiming what they are not or claiming to have cures to certain ailments. Allowing them to advertise will also help them circulate fake information to the public.
But there are challenges in a particular venture don’t mean that efforts will not be made to make progress. The health profession has been regarded as one of the sectors lacking grossly in innovations as compared with the banking, education and tech industries. With the introduction on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), the possibilities have been limitless. Speaking during a presentation at the Future of Health Summit in Abuja last year, the CEO of JCL Nigeria argued that the Nigerian health care system needs to be “Uberized”, using the innovative taxi request service that is transforming local transportation across the globe.
Transforming the healthcare system in Nigeria might entail allowing hospitals to advertise. The basic duty of a doctor or other healthcare professional is to deliver quality healthcare service and the first duty of a patient is to be able to find one when they need them. If hospitals don’t advertise, how can patients know what services they have and how to seek them?
Mr. Frank (last name withheld) was wrongly diagnosed sometime in 2013. After wasting so much time, it was discovered that he had stomach cancer. He underwent surgery and commenced chemotherapy, but he died after suffering for months. If he was able to access the correct health professional from the onset, perhaps, he would still be alive today.
The World Medical Association Declaration on the rights of the patient placed importance on the right of the patient to be treated by someone they know their capabilities.
The declaration was adopted by the 34th World Medical Assembly (WMA), Lisbon, Portugal, September/October 1981 and was reaffirmed by the 200th WMA Council Session, Oslo, Norway, April 2015.
According to one of the sessions in the declaration, “the patient has the right to choose freely and change his/her physician and hospital or health service institution, regardless of whether they are based in the private or public sector.” If they don’t have a list of options, how can they make informed choices?
Some old and established hospitals might support the idea of restricting advertising to avoid competition from the younger and more innovative hospitals but this should rather serve as a positive stimulant to drive innovation in the sector.
Restricting advertising by hospitals continues to give monopoly of care to certain health providers as they continue to engage in self-referral to the detriment of the patient.
In the United Kingdom where advertising is also restricted, a system is in place to ensure that resources are not misused and that patients get the best possible care at the lowest possible rate. A patient is first seen by a General Practioner (GP) and only referred to a specialist if considered absolutely necessary.
In the USA, this practice was disrupted when doctors sued the American Medical Association (AMA) and the Supreme Court ruled that it was not fair to both doctors and patients to restrict advertising. It was unfair to patients because they need access to doctors in order to select the best for themselves.
With the very complex healthcare system that is still lacking coordination in Nigeria, it would be difficult to have a clear procedure for patients’ referral in order to check the excesses of private practitioners who often refuse to refer patients to the right places for their financial gains. The closest possible action to take on this might be to have a system to check what information hospitals put out to the public and also make media houses part of the system. That way, they will not accept advertisements unless it is endorsed and all information certified to be true by relevant authorities.
The Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) and other professional associations need to be proactive on this because while they are practicing their “noble” profession, the trado-medical practitioners are busy telling whoever is listening to visit their “stands” for a single drug that is solution to all their medical needs.