Martins Ugwu Okpehgate, is the Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria fit for purpose?
Recently the Nigerian news media was inundated with bizarre headlines of a 'fake medical doctor' who have worked for the Federal Ministry of Health, Abuja for almost a decade with false identity. News report have it that Martins, a 44 year old secondary school certificate holder, successfully worked as a medical doctor in a federal institution for about 9 years. Taken his mischief to ridiculous height, he was branch chairman of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), and was due to be promoted as an assistant director in the federal ministry of health. Okpeh was part of "medical volunteers trained by the ministry in conjunction with African-Union Support to Ebola Outbreak in West-Africa (ASEOWA) mission in Liberia.” Recounting, he accepted stealing a friend's certificates to facilitate his employment, and that he never opted for clinical services to avoid damage that may occur, but went into administration and research. Perhaps, the aspect of his statement that reveals grave weaknesses in our system is where he said "Severally, there were biometric verifications, but I survived them, I was the NMA chairman in 2008, Federal Ministry of health, I don’t think has the mechanisms for that, the Ministry is porous"[Sic]. He reasoned that such a dangerous course of action was taken so that he can serve as an independent undercover investigator. This to me is a huge joke taken too far. It is a scandal of unimaginable proportion.
What Martins Okpeh did is condemnable. Relevant authorities should take necessary action to ensure justice is done in this matter. It is pertinent to note however that he took advantage of an ineffectual regulatory system. It is hard to believe that this fake doctor acted alone. His accomplices need to be brought to book as well. Okpehgate has revealed a new low in the Nigerian medical profession - whatever happened to peer review. How could he have worked in the ministry of health, surrounded and dealing with medical doctors without being found out. Is it that the job roles of doctors working in this department of the ministry of health requires no skill, that a holder of secondary school certificate can handle without raising suspicion? If so then there is need for an urgent review to ensure public funds is not wasted in dubious payment for jobs that does not require any qualifications. Unfortunately the Okpeh debacle has generated more questions than answers.
A perusal of this avoidable fiasco unveils a deep rooted systemic failure in the regulation of Medical and Dental Practitioners in Nigeria. The Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria (MDCN) is statutorily charged with the responsibility of regulating Medical and Dental professionals to safeguard healthcare delivery to Nigerians. The statutory instrument that set up this body provides the following mandate; Regulation of training in Medicine, Dentistry and Alternative Medicine in Nigeria; Regulation of Medical, Dental and Alternative Medicine practice in Nigeria; Determination of the knowledge and skills of these professionals; Regulation and control of Laboratory Medicine in Nigeria. The Mission statement of the MDCN is “To regulate the practice of Medicine, Dentistry and Alternative Medicine in the most efficient manner that safeguards best healthcare delivery for Nigerians". Question. Is the MDCN fit for purpose? Obviously the answer is on the negative. Where was the MDCN when Martin Okpeh paraded himself as a medical doctor for over 9 years? I doubt if we can trust the MDCN to safeguard and protect patients in Nigeria.
In fulfilment of its statutory obligations, as a minimum, there should be an online register of all practitioners in the country with their current status and work addresses. There is need for yearly reregistration and fitness to practice declarations, and regular monitoring of continuing professional development (CPD). A situation where medical and dental practitioners practice for years without renewal of their licence or fitness to practice checks is an invitation to chaos and a fertile ground for the likes of Martin to thrive.
This author advocates that while its important to punish Martin Okpeh for breach of law, there is the need for heads to roll at the MDCN because of their negligence in this crisis. When the MDCN fails, patients are not protected, dental and medical education is compromised, support for practitioners is lacking and punishment of those who show gaps in applying knowledge to practice is totalling absent. It is hard to accept that a registrant would be doing their residency training in Jos while at the same time working in the federal ministry of health in Abuja. Unless of course no checks are made on doctors while practicing. I will opine that the federal civil service process which brought in Martin Okpeh and saw him through the ranks should be thoroughly investigated - those found culpable should face the law.
It is shocking that the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) found Martin Okpeh, a secondary school certificate holder, the best amongst its members to be the chairman of their professional body. The fact that the NMA is a trade union for doctors cannot be argued with, it behoves on the NMA to look beyond negotiating pay and better conditions of service for its members - but ensures that all its members are indeed genuine experts and can be relied upon to provide highest level of healthcare services to the Nigerian patients. In this way the public can see their brand as trusted and dependable. It should police itself by making sure all its members are first and foremost qualified doctors thereby safeguarding the nation's health which they swore to protect. More so that the Association nominates members of the Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria which regulates the practice of medicine and dentistry in Nigeria, It's regrettable that the NMA has in the past wasted valuable time not only influencing government for better pay but frustrating other healthcare providers from getting best value for themselves. Okpehgate provides Nigerian medical doctors an opportunity to make a new start in building trust and confidence from the public - a great deal of goodwill has been lost through squabbles with other healthcare professionals for pecuniary gains and unnecessary strikes while patients are left untended. The most cherished commodity in healthcare delivery is the professional - patient trust.
If anyone cares about the wellbeing of Nigerians at all, then this is the best time to take action so as to reposition our healthcare delivery. Our people deserve the best and not the mediocre service on offer.