Leading the Way Back Home: Nigerian Minister of State for Health, Dr. Muhammad Ali Pate

Dr. Kate TulenkoAll eyes were on newly appointed Minister of State for Health Dr. Muhammad Ali Pate as he presented his vision of health for Nigeria: 1,000,000 lives saved and quality of care measurably improved. He expertly laid out four pillars to achieve this goal: expanding basic services; disease prevention (particularly through scaling-up Hib and pneumococcal vaccination); increasing quality of care via improved clinical governance; and unlocking the health sector’s market potential via increased public and private investment.

One of the special reasons for the excitement in the room at the “Innovative Approaches to Expanding Health Care Services in Nigeria” meeting on September 21 at Africare in Washington, DC, was the fact that many of the attendees, myself included, knew and had worked with Dr. Pate personally.

Dr. Pate has been on an extraordinary journey to his spot as Minister of State. Trained in medicine in Nigeria, he earned a masters degree in health system management in the UK, followed by residency and an MBA in the US. He then joined the World Bank through the Young Professionals Program and rose to the rank of Acting Sector Manager. Dr. Pate could have had a comfortable career at the Bank or another global health organization, but instead he chose to give up his international salary and UN passport and serve his country as the Executive Director of Nigeria’s Primary Health Care Development Agency.

In three years, working with his staff and local leaders, Dr. Pate slashed the incidence of polio in Nigeria by a whopping 95%. He also led a midwife retention program that placed 4,000 midwives in 1,000 clinics with a full complement of supplies and cell phones for communication, and launched a training program for midlevel health managers to improve the governance of the health sector. All of these achievements are truly amazing. The President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, recognized and rewarded Dr. Pate’s success by appointing him Minister of State for Health in July. Dr. Pate then attracted former World Bank health systems specialist and McKinsey manager Dr. Kelechi Ohiri to serve as his special assistant. Nigeria has also reached out to other expatriate health professionals including the Association of Nigerian Physicians in the Americas, which now has a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Health to assist in making the national medical school curriculum more relevant to national needs.

With many developing countries having more than half of their physicians overseas, I hope that Dr. Pate and Nigeria serve as a role model in encouraging health workers who are already overseas to return home to serve their countries and those who never left to stay. In Nigeria, as in most countries, the majority of the money spent in the health sector is domestic rather than donor money. Until we get the right leadership in ministries of health around the world, it does not matter how strong development partners are. Let Dr. Pate and Nigeria serve as a positive example for all.

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