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Doctors trained in Nigeria are in top positions all over the world – Prof Onunu

Prof Abel Onunu, MBBS, MD, FWACP, FACP, FRCP (London), FNAMed, is a distinguished Professor of Internal Medicine and currently pioneer Vice-Chancellor of the newly established Federal University of Health Sciences, Kwale, Delta State, Nigeria.

In this interview with Ehi Braimah, Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of Naija Times, Prof Onunu explains his keen interest in medicine and the practice, opportunities and challenges in the medical profession, and his recent appointment as Vice Chancellor of the Federal University of Health Sciences, Kwale, Delta State. 

Q: You’re a professor of medicine. What’s your area of specialisation?

A: Yes. I am a Professor of internal medicine, infectious diseases and dermatology 

Q: Explain how medical doctors choose their areas of specialisation.

A: There are several phases in the training of a Specialist Medical Doctor.  After successful undergraduate training in the University that will lead to the award of the Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery ( MBBS), they undergo the one-year mandatory housemanship (internship) training in an accredited hospital to solidify their clinical skills. Then they go on to serve in the National Youth Service Corp (NYSC). The specialisation training begins when they are employed as Resident Doctors in an accredited training institution after the NYSC. This is the first place for them to decide the area to specialise in e.g. Medicine, Surgery,  Pathology,  Obstetrics etc. Generally, there are three phases in the specialisation process; Primary, Membership (Part 1) and Fellowship (Part 2). It is a very rigorous process and usually takes a minimum of 6 years to complete. It is after the Membership stage that the final decision on super-specialisation is made

Q: Who is a consultant in the field of medicine?

A: A Consultant in the profession is a Super specialist who has gone through all phases of the training, passed the final Part 2 examinations and awarded the Fellowship Diploma by a Postgraduate Medical College.

Q: You were recently appointed VC of the Federal University of Health Sciences in Kwale, Delta State. Give us an insight into your vision and the strategic goals of the university.

A: The goal of establishing the Universities of Health Sciences is to produce well trained personnel for the health sector. The Government realised the special needs for the teeming population of the country, so there is urgent need to scale up the training of all cadres of medical personnel in the country.

The brain drain is a very unfortunate phenomenon. We do not have enough medical professionals for our teeming population yet the few we have are being lost to other countries.

Q: What were the other appointments made, and when is the university commencing academic activities? Where will the campus be located in Kwale? 

A: The Federal University of Health Sciences Kwale is located in Kwale, the headquarters of Ndokwa-West LGA, Delta State. The Principal officers of the institution have been appointed viz: Vice Chancellor, Registrar, Bursar and Librarian. We will commence activities as soon as we get the funds to take off. We will most likely start with a temporary site in  Kwale while the permanent site is being developed.

Q: With the rising cost of living and tuition fees being raised in federal universities, what will be your launch strategy?

A: As a Federal institution there are guidelines for whatever we have to do. We will be proactive and innovative in developing the institution.

Q: What kind of courses will be available to students at the university? Will the structure be similar to other universities? Do you intend to model the health sciences university after another university? If yes, which university do you have in mind?

A: The structure will be similar to the other Federal Universities of Health Sciences already in operation. We will introduce the courses in phases as the infrastructure allows but eventually, we will have students in most of the medical and health sciences 

Q: Medical doctors under the auspices of the Nigerian Medical Association embark on strike actions in spite of the hippocratic oath that they took. Why is it so?

A: There are many factors responsible for workers going on strike. Medical professionals are part and parcel of society and are affected by the same factors that result in strike actions. It is a global phenomenon, recently there have been several strikes by medical professionals in the UK. 

Q: How do you see the brain drain (doctors and nurses) in the healthcare sector in Nigeria? What is the impact?

A: The brain drain is a very unfortunate phenomenon. We do not have enough medical professionals for our teeming population yet the few we have are being lost to other countries. The primary reason they are leaving is poor remuneration.  I believe that if salaries in Nigeria are at par with what they earn outside they will not leave.

Q: You belong to different professional associations. Tell us about them.

A: Yes, I belong to many professional groups such as the Nigerian Medical Association,  Nigerian Academy of Medicine, West African College of Physicians, American College of Physicians,  Royal College of Physicians of London etc.  I am currently the President of the African Society of Dermatology and Venereology (ASDV). The goals of these organisations differ slightly but generally, they are involved in training, standard setting, accreditation, policy development and continuing medical education 

Q: You recently returned from Singapore, where you attended a dermatology conference. Can you shed more light on the conference outcomes? What other conferences have you attended and where?

A: Yes, I attended the World Congress of Dermatology in Singapore early this month as a delegate representing the African Society of Dermatology and Venereology. It was a very successful outing as African Dermatologists participated in all aspects of the congress,  particularly,  Nigerian Dermatologists.

Q: What are the requirements for a university to receive accreditation to offer courses in the faculty of medicine?

A: They are numerous.  But generally, the institution must have the basic minimum in personnel and infrastructure as dictated by the programme or course you want to run. These accreditations are facilitated by the National Universities Commission (NUC) and other professional bodies like the Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria,  the Nursing and Midwifery Council etc. 

In medical education in Nigeria, there is no loss or deterioration of quality. If anything there is an increase in the knowledge base of our graduates because of the daily explosion of medical knowledge and skills compared to yesteryears.

Q: Share your experiences at UBTH, and what was your role there?

A: The University of Benin Teaching Hospital and the University of Benin are among the preeminent tertiary institutions in this country. The training and expertise that one acquires here prepare us to practise globally. The graduates from these institutions are in top positions all over the world .

Q: What will be your advice to young students who wish to read medicine? What are the opportunities for horsemanship, residency, and employment? 

A: To work hard, be diligent and committed to the profession. The opportunities are there and numerous. These hard times will not last forever; they should persevere. 

Q: There’s a general concern about the deteriorating quality of education and the graduates produced. How do leaders like you manage such concerns in the medical field?

A: In medical education in Nigeria, there is no loss or deterioration of quality. If anything there is an increase in the knowledge base of our graduates because of the daily explosion of medical knowledge and skills compared to yesteryears. The problems are mainly in the upgrading of the equipment and funding of the institutions.

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Prof Onunu (middle) with other conference delegates in Singapore

Q: How are the related fields such as Optometry, Pharmacy, etc complimenting the work of medical doctors?

A: In Teaching Hospitals, they all work together to provide holistic care for the patients. When people are together issues are sure to arise. The various groups I believe are sorting these out for a more amicable working environment.

Q: Compare and contrast the study of medicine when you were a medical student and today. What has changed or what needs to change?

A: The medical knowledge out there today is so enormous. What we need today is to upgrade our Hospitals so that our people can benefit from all the new discoveries and research.

Q: What is the impact of technology on the study of medicine?

A: Technology is at the forefront of most developments in Medicine. The new area now is the introduction of Artificial intelligence applications in medicine. It is going to open up a lot of new developments including ethical issues.

Q: To prevent re-occurring ASUU strikes, how should universities be funded on a sustainable basis?

A: There are many ways to fund education as a whole in Nigeria. The important thing is for the funding to be adequate. It is a responsibility and the citizens need to be educated for the country to develop. Educating the citizens is one of the fastest ways of developing a country. 

Q: Do you think the admission process into universities should be reviewed in view of the menace of examination malpractices?

A: All processes including admissions need to be reviewed from time to time leveraging new technologies to improve the process.

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