Wanted: Nigeria’s own Surgeon General
Like our constitution, this is one office we need to borrow from the United States of America as a matter of urgency. In the US, the Surgeon General is a medical doctor and the operational head of the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. The office is part of the office of the Assistant Secretary for Health in the office of the Secretary of Health and Human services – just like our own Minister of State, Federal Ministry of Health.
In America, the Surgeon General is often a military officer, a three-star Vice-Admiral, while in office. Like our own Attorney General, he must be nominated by the President and be confirmed by the Senate. Like other elected government officials, the surgeon general serves a four-year term of office. He serves as the principal adviser to the American Health Minister (referred to as Secretary of health and Human Services) on public health and scientific issues. Apart from being the overall head of the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (like Nigeria’s Public Health Department of the Ministry of Health) the American Surgeon General is vested with the informal duties of educating American public about health issues and healthy lifestyles. The Surgeon General also issues health warnings and instructions and general advice to the American public. He deals strictly with health and scientific issues.
I believe having the office of the Surgeon General in Nigeria, like that of the Attorney General, could be the permanent solution to the wrangling among our health professionals. In the first instance, just as the Attorney-General is reserved strictly for lawyers, the office of the Surgeon General will be occupied by a medical doctor. No dispute about that. This means we can now have a real technocrat as a health minister, who could be any professional, to run the health ministry effectively. That will automatically put an end to unnecessary agitations over which professional should head the ministry.
With a technocrat as a health minister, we can now begin to address issues affecting the health professionals in the health ministry and parastatals without unnecessary emotional attachments and biases. We can begin to address the rot in our health care delivery system, sometimes worsened by the health workers’ non-challant attitudes, over-bloated ego, corruption (yes, no sector is immune to corruption) and general indiscipline which we dare not address now for fear of being labelled anti-doctors, anti-nurse or anti-pharmacists.
Can anyone remember when last we had real public health advice from our health ministry? I can only recall those days of the late Prof. Olikoye Ransome-Kuti. That was when our public health department was vibrant and health alerts were issued from time to time and we got up-to-date information on what to do in some precarious circumstances. This will be an automatic duty of the office of the surgeon General when we have one.
The Nigerian Surgeon General needs not be a military officer as in the US. His concern will however be strictly health and scientific issues. He will leave politics and how the health ministry is run to the technocrats and politicians. The surgeon General will not have to devote all his time attending to striking health workers. The politics of the ministry will be left squarely in the hands of the minister who should have time to attend to the workers’ needs and pursue their welfare without bias. The minister can now have time in implementing government health programmes.
I think the presidency and legislature should give this a thought. Just imagine, with a Surgeon-general well provided for by our constitution, the president will be free to pick a health minister purely on merit and without any group threatening brimstone and fire if he fails to choose one of them.
Having a surgeon General will save the nation the unnecessary bickering that has been the hallmark of our health ministry over the years. It will ensure that our health workers work as a team that they are meant to be. With the bickering over who should head the health ministry out of the way, we can now concentrate on giving our health care delivery system the right attention and by implication, focus on our health a little bit. And who knows, maybe the little issue of professional ethics will engage the attention of our healthy workers.
I think we need a surgeon General … or what do you think?