Strengthening capacity of healthcare professionals

The COVID-19 pandemic upturned healthcare systems all over the world, bringing gaps in health systems to the fore and exacerbating inequities in fragile health systems. Before the pandemic, an estimated 1.7 billion children lacked access to safe, affordable surgical care.

This staggering number includes children with clefts, a common congenital anomaly that impacts an average of 1 in 700 babies and requires a range of multidisciplinary care in addition to surgery. In Nigeria, the impact of the pandemic on babies born with clefts makes it clear we cannot delay in investing in strong health systems.

Cleft is a stigmatising birth difference in which a child is born with a gap between the lips that at times extend to, or is isolated from, the roof of the mouth called the palate. A child born with cleft experiences difficulty breathing, eating and speaking. With treatment, children with clefts can overcome these challenges to live a happy, healthy life.

Cleft treatment, however, requires a holistic, patient-centred approach. As a global organisation that has been in existence for the past 21 years and in Nigeria for the last decade, Smile Trains model is rooted in empowering medical professionals with training, funding and resources to ensure that quality cleft care is as close to their doorsteps as possible.

Beyond surgery, as part of our commitment to treating the whole patient, Smile Train provides comprehensive cleft care including nutrition, speech therapy, orthodontics and psychosocial support. All these fields require a medical professional who can walk the journey with the patient towards a productive life.

The teach a man to fish model has stood the test of the COVID-19 storm, stepping in where mission-led treatment was grounded, and social interaction limited. At Smile Train Africa, we were able to reach 2000 more patients with clefts than in the previous year.

In the spirit of cohesive development with various stakeholders, Smile Train has partnered with the Federal Ministry of Health to develop a National Surgical, Obstetrics Anaesthesia and Nursing Plan (NSOANP). This ground-breaking framework brings diverse fields of healthcare to lay a firm foundation for policy development while finding ways to scale healthcare to reach the last mile patient.

We are also investing in research to form the basis of policy development. One of the tools is the cleft e-registry which will map out cleft patients and provide data that would scale our program interventions.

It was therefore an honor for Smile Train to be feted at the recent Nigeria Healthcare Excellence Award 2021 (NHEA) for Excellence in Support of Healthcare Professionals. This prestigious award appreciated Smile Train for donating and providing training, funding, and resources to empower local medical professionals and to provide 100% free cleft surgery.

NHEA which prides itself as being the Oscar of Nigerian healthcare, is an annual event where outstanding personalities and organizations are recognized and celebrated for their exceptional contributions to the healthcare sector. Aptly themed Celebrating Our Healthcare Heroes, Smile Train constantly shines the spotlight on the healthcare professionals who tirelessly endeavor to pour themselves to the service of humanity. Many of these healthcare professionals work in low resource settings with limited facilities and low training.

Looking ahead, we have joined hands with Scottish charity Kids Operating Room to upgrade Armed Forces Specialist Hospital, Kano, Lagos University Teaching Hospital and National Orthopaedic Hospital Enugu. The state-of-the-art paediatric operating rooms and recovery ward have been outfitted with the latest medical equipment as well as colorful wall art of animals, trains, and balloons designs that are meant to transform the often-intimidating environment of an operating room into a welcoming, child-friendly space that enhances the healing experience. Together with KidsOR, we aim to transform the lives of 12,000 children in Africa by the end of 2021.

Let us collectively ensure that our patients always come first and are given high standards of treatment regardless of their socio-economic status. We need to continue advocating for the rights to quality, affordable healthcare especially among children. Our healthcare providers deserve to be prioritised at every level- from community health volunteers, nurses and midwives to surgeons. Everyone deserves a seat at the table, with the focus never fading from the patient who deserves to smile.

Mrs. Obi is Smile Trains Vice President and Regional Director, Africa