Healthcare Practitioners In Nigeria Must Learn To Treat Patients With Dignity–Dr. Uche Anyanwagu

By Ikenga Chronicles February 14, 2018

Uche Anyanwagu is a medical doctor, writer, and social critic. A widely read man, and recipient of many scholarships, Uche has an in-depth variety of ideas on the medical field.

In this exclusive interview with Ikenga Chronicles, he discusses the trouble with the Nigerian medical system, what can be done to remedy the situation, his achievements and identity, and proffers some advice to the young.


You as a man with so many degrees which makes it look like one already knows who you are, but at the same I’ve always wanted to ask the question, who is Uche Anyanwagu?

Uche Anyanwagu is the 5th child and last son of Late Mazi JCU and Mrs E.C Anyanwagu. He is from Old-Umuahia, Umuahia South, Abia State. He is a Christian of the Anglican Faith, extremely sociable, organised and dedicated to whatever he believes in. He loves writing, reading, travelling, swimming and playing the piano. Uche likes to be remembered as a child of GOD, budding poet, sophist and a social-critic.

Your educational background experience is very impressive by anyone’s standards. Can you please give us a little insight about yourself and the roles you have held throughout your career and how they have helped you in your current position? 

Thank you very much. I have not so much to say about myself rather than the fact that I had a very humble beginning. From a low background and I struggled through life to get to the level I am today. Losing my dad as a child about 27 years ago and being left with my 5 siblings for my mum (who was just a housewife then) marked a turning points in our lives. This created a strong sense of self-discipline, independence and a great sense of industry. It made me to know early enough that I am only responsible for myself and what I make out of my life. I also knew that it is only through education that I can break the limitations of my background. So, I started early, before the age of 10, with this mind set.

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Careerwise, I started as a good medical student – was a speaker at a time in our lower house and later the Editor of our Medical Journal. During my MSc and PhD days in the UK, I was the Student Representative in these programs. By hindsight, I think my role as the editor of our medical journal, unknowingly prepared me for what later became my career and passion.

You have BS; MPH; MSc and now PhD. Is that where it ends or are you planning on adding more feathers to your hat?

Sure! Knowledge never ends. I still owe myself an MBA and maybe another Masters in either Religion/Philosophy or Education.

Globalization is said to have a huge impact on public health. What is your advice to addressing cross-border health risks?

The truth remains that globalisation has its up and down sides as it relates to health. Today, we have seen innovations in health and their transfer across borders. Conversely, we have seen how far diseases spread due to innovations in transportation, change in population dynamics due to immigration, bio-terrorism, etc. High level of epidemiological surveillance, good border health control measures and keying medicine into the recent innovations in security can help address cross-border health risks

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What public health problems would you say deserve more attention than they are receiving today?

There are so many public health issues in Nigeria which we do not pay any attention to. What bothers me is that our attention to them is actually a fire brigade type (even our fire brigade service is dead and is ineffective.* laughter*). So, you understand where I am coming from. Our method is reactionary and never pro-active.

For example, the issue of Lassa fever has always been there. I learnt it more than 10 years ago in medical school. What do we have in place in our own government hospitals to check and control these over the years? None! As at today, 31 people in 15 states (including my fellow Doctors) have died of Lassa fever. Should Ebola resurface, we will still be affected more. So, Lassa fever rages on! Even polio we thought we have defeated is there! “Common malaria” is still an issue in this 21st century. Let me stop at these common ones.

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Apart from being humble, what other greatest challenges would you say physicians face today?

The challenges faced by Physicians are varied. These depend on the individual, his field of practice, and his place of practice. So, the stories are not the same for every Doctor. Now, your individual traits and character will definitely play out in your vocation. A humble man will be a humble doctor just as a proud man can be a proud mechanic. Arrogance is not the exclusive preserve of any profession. So, individuals with good interpersonal relationship will be better doctors.

Field of practice – Medicine is diverse. A surgeon does not operate in the same world as a Public Health physician. So, each specialty has its own challenges which the Physician may be able to manage well or not. This leans back a bit to the type of person the Doctor is.

Finally, the place of practice – No matter how good a physician is, this is a very important aspect. Those practising in developed places with high-tech medical equipment as the US and UK do not share the same story as their Nigerian counterparts who task their brains and improvise almost everything to get along in their practice and have good patient outcomes. In conclusion, the non-existent infrastructures in the Nigerian medial practice is a very great challenge faced by physicians here.

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 If you could change one thing about the Nigerian healthcare system, what would it be? 

  1. Our politicians (Presidency to Local Councillors). Our current crop of politicians are bad eggs and our system must be purged of them
  2. Our health managers (Ministry of Health Administrators and Hospital CMDs). They are highly inefficient and most are corrupt.
  3. Our Healthcare practitioners (HCPs) need a very strong attitudinal change. We can’t get anywhere with our current attitude. That is the fact.
  4. Patients must be enthroned as kings. They are never respected by our HCPs and that should change. Their rights must always be respected.

 What do you consider to be the greatest need that epidemiology has in the area of public appreciation of epidemiology?

Poor understanding and appreciation of Epidemiology among people. It is even sad that most doctors and medical students do not understand what it entails and tend to run away from it.

Do you have any current/future health project in mind for Nigeria?

Yes. I want to pioneer or maybe expand the database of Epidemiology in Nigeria. This digital age presents a golden opportunity for us to tap into. So, I will love to create an electronic database (and link electronic health records of all hospitals) of all patients in hospitals in Nigeria so that we can use this for medical research. It is sad that most health researches are not done using our population. Applying their findings on our population limits or confounds the expected outcomes.

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Have you always had a passion for colour because you seem to dress to promote African attire?

Yes. After being human, the next thing I am is African. I derive my identity here and I am at peace in, and with it. So, dressing is a part of my identity, and happily, the first identifiable part. So, I am proud of my heritage and I am both passionate and proud of it.

How would you describe your current state of mind with everything going on in Nigeria?

We are simply good in all negative indices and absent or missing in the positive ones. Tell me one thing, just ONE GOOD thing that is going on very well in Nigeria today? As big and blessed and naturally endowed as we are with people and resources, we are just a mess of a people due to the kind of leadership we have. Chinua Achebe was right in his small book The Trouble with Nigeria written 35 years ago

Do you have any vision for the Nigerian health sector?

Of course I do. I believe that health should be treated as a basic human right because you must be alive to have any other right. People should be entitled to quality healthcare irrespective of their financial status. For a start, EMERGENCY CARE must be made free in Nigeria and we should train our paramedics, equip the Accident and Emergency and Acute Medical Units of our hospitals, get adequate ambulances and emergency response teams, get dedicated lines like 111 or 999 and set the wheel rolling. Should I be the President tomorrow, this I will do in less than 2 years.

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When you started your career in Nigeria, did you ever think that you would become such a brilliant medical non-fiction satirist?

(Laughter) I don’t know which came first for me – Passion for Medicine or Writing. I have found a connection or reconciliation between both worlds in the words of this fellow Russian Doctor and Writer (Anton Chekhov, 1860 – 1904):

                                                   “Medicine is my lawful wife

                                                     and literature my mistress;

                                                     when I get tired of one,

                                                     I spend the night with the other.”

Who is a perfect Uche woman?

Any lady who believes in, and sees herself as an individual, has a clear vision, passionate about her goals in life and not limited by gender. My lady is a lady that sees herself in the light of purpose. I believe that such a lady must be very pretty and attractive and Godfearing too.

How do you always look on the bright side of life?

Before I turned 9, I was forced by my late Dad to read many books and in the process I read one book by Shakespeare which forever left an indelible imprint in my infant mind. That book is called The Tempest. The exiled Duke penned down 4 things he learnt while in exile on an isolated island with his only child Miranda. The last of the 4 lessons was “There is good in everything”. As a child, The Tempest filled me with the awe of self-survival and also tasked me to see good in everything. So, I learnt early to manage failures and adversities well and to see the other side of things. There is a positive side to everything that happens on earth only if we look deeper and intently. So, a failure is a great lesson on how not to do things.

What do you like about being a doctor?

Just for the problem(s) it solves (at the most vulnerable point in people’s lives) and the inner joy it brings when you have truly played your part.

Do you think doctors have a more powerful inner life? It’s often said that doctors are less emotional and more sensitive.

Truly, they do. I think doctors have the deepest inner life. Personally, I have seen life begin. I have watched life end. I have seen first breaths taken. I have also seen last breaths drawn. These two moments and the thing called “life” in between them have deepened the breaths I take.  Doctors are very emotional but we have been taught never to show it. How would you feel, bringing in your relative in a bad state to me, crying and on seeing you, I burst out crying? We are trained to give hope. We are wounded healers. We have to be more sensitive to the situation and show empathy rather than sympathy. Before I forget, we do cry. Seriously, we do. I have most times left my patients to go cry behind the scene.

Is there anything in the medical field that gets you embarrassed?

Not knowing what to do in a situation and no help is near. The helplessness gets me embarrassed but being honest about it too, gives me a way out.

How do you balance the responsibility to the truth in “The Meat Of Our Myths” with the responsibility of an engaging story?

For Medical Myths, I just say things exactly the way I encountered them in my practice but the act of story-telling brings it alive and makes it a tool to bring about a societal change. So, I don’t really know how I do it but I do it.

Do you plan on publishing a book on “The Meat Of Our Myths” someday? 

Initially, I didn’t plan to, but the feedback I get has been massive and all point towards getting it published. I will do that before the year runs out. For now, I will keep the series on every Monday for at least 30 weeks.

How did you find your creativity in “The Meat Of Our Myths”

These are stories that play out themselves in our daily lives – in the clinic, on the streets, market places, etc. It is only when we are sensitive and very discerning that we can see these stories, hear the voices and write the beautiful scripts from them. So, as I attend to my patients, I see my story in theirs.

A man’s name and status became bigger than life at a certain point. Like people would only see the medical maestro Uche and not the person. Has it been like that for you?

I have never changed. I have chosen a simple unassuming life and I revel in that. This is one of the reasons I so much hate titles and have refused to go by them. I would prefer people to know the person and not the personality. We acquire titles and degrees for service and not for display. I feel a heavy burden of responsibility with titles and this is why I have always gone by my name, Uche and frowned at anyone adding any titles to it.

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How did becoming a doctor change your life?

 It broadened my horizon and view of life and living, made me appreciate team work and build greater interpersonal skills. It made me see, know and appreciate life and living. Then Epidemiology gave the beauty I saw in figures (humans) and populations.

 How important is the Internet today in the medical world?

Truly, I will say as important as the drugs we dispense. This is today’s reality. This is our world

 Are you a spiritual person?

Yes I am. I believe that beyond all eyes can see, in this flesh lies something greater and eternal – That is the spirit. It has its own food and you must feed it to thrive.

With your PhD out of the way, would you say you have achieved everything you wanted to achieve academically?

No. I am even a non-starter. I want to inspire younger minds for change. I want to awaken, in youths, the spirit of believing in themselves, never giving up, and always striving until they reach the mark; then set another target and move on. So I do not only want to teach, I want to inspire younger minds. I also want to reach out to our communities – the unheard of, the unreached, and the poorest of the poor and inspire them for positive change.

With all your achievements up to date, If the young “Uche Anyanwagu” could meet you today, what would be his reaction?

I think the young Uche will say: “Well done! You have tried. Better late than never. I know you have come a long way. You still have many more to do. So, brace up.” I think he will also remind him of this quote:

                                                                “The day is short,

                                                                  The task is hard.

                                                         Ours is not to finish the task,

                                                      Neither are we free to neglect it”

What exactly was Queen Elizabeth saying to you here (picture above)?

I recall it was during Commonwealth Day commemoration in 2014. I was among the lucky commonwealth scholars (I did my 2nd Masters under The Commonwealth Scholarship) invited for a dinner with the Queen. After the dinner, we were all lined up in the gallery for Her Majesty to greet her guests. After all the preps on Royal protocols, she emerged with The Duke of Edinburgh and I was lucky she came my way as they took opposite sides on entering the door.

Our discussion lasted less than 2 mins and it was not just the talk per say, but the aura around it. Her mien, the majestic splendour and the grace exuding from her face. I have written about this in a chapter of my unpublished book called “Nothing Harms”.

We wore badges with our names on it. So as she approached my beloved friend Wale and I. She tried to pronounce my name and surname. Don’t ask me if she got it because the Queen is always right. She went on to ask where I school and I told her. I told her I do a Masters in Applied Epidemiology, and she responded: “Oh is that about the skin?” I took more time to portray to her the beauty of Epidemiology. She was thrilled. Later, she asked if I enjoy the course, and I responded that I do, and thanked her for granting me the scholarship. Lastly, she asked: “Which country are you again from?”

She was indeed majestic. I felt I was in a dream and felt light-headed and fainty.

How would you rate Buhari’s presidency?

I will rate Buhari poorly. If he were to be my student, definitely I will score him below 20% in all aspects of governance. His government is a total failure and I owe him this simple truth.

If appointed the health minister under President Buhari would you accept the offer? And if not why?

No. I can’t serve in a dishonest administration.

It has been nice talking to you.

Thank you.

* Copyright IKENGA Chronicles. All rights reserved. This article, may not be re-published, rewritten or redistributed in whole or in part without the prior express written permission of IKENGA Chronicles.

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