The Essential Health Service Package in Nigeria

When examining the service delivery building block of a health system we much ask what, how and where?  “What” addresses the package of services, “How” describes the mechanisms and personnel who do the delivery, and “Where” considers making services accessible in or very near the community. These are the issues explored in this case study on Nigeria. As USAID notes, “An Essential Package of Health Services (EPHS) can be defined as the package of services that the government is providing or is aspiring to provide to its citizens in an equitable manner. Essential packages are often expected to achieve multiple goals: improved efficiency, equity, political empowerment, accountability, and altogether more effective care.”[i]

Although Nigeria has held Primary Health Care as the official foundation of its national health policy since 1986, it took nearly 30 years to give legal backing to a standard service package with the legislative passage and presidential signing of the National Health Bill in 2014. The law says that “all citizens shall be entitled to a basic minimum package of health services…” defined as “the set of health services as may be prescribed from time to time by the Minister after consultation with the National Council on Health” (National Health Bill, 2014 (SB. 215)).1

Up until that time one could infer the existence of an essential medicines list for primary care through the “Standing Orders” service provision algorithms.[ii] These algorithms guide front line health staff known as community health extension workers (CHEWs) in providing quality and accurate treatment and prevention for common illnesses. The Standing Orders also form the basis for training for CHEWs. For each area, “there is a set of actions including health education, further investigation, treatment, and follow-up necessary for good client’s care.”

As an example of essential medicines, the section of an algorithm for fever management below indicates that Artemisinin-Based Combination Treatment (ACT) malaria medicines and Long-Lasting Insecticide-Treated Nets (LLINS) for malaria prevention should be part of the basic package found at the front line.

USAID describes the official service delivery system in Nigeria as organized in three tiers. Tertiary facilities operated by the Federal Ministry of Health are the highest level of health care and serve as referral centers for patients. State Ministries of Health manage secondary facilities, which provide some specialized health services. Local Government Area (LGA) PHC Departments manage primary facilities, which provide the most basic entry point to the health care system-health centers, clinics, and dispensaries. It is at the LGA level in frontline PHC clinics where the CHEWs mentioned above function and deliver the basic package. Volunteer CHW programs exist and are often run by NGOs and are poorly coordinated, although efforts in recent years have aimed at standardizing their training and activities.

In reality, Nigerians at the community level face a mosaic of health service delivery mechanisms ranging from LGA clinics and dispensaries, patent medicine shops, private clinics often run by nurses and licensed to physicians living in the city, and a range of indigenous practitioners (herbalists, bone setters) and faith healers (based in all major religious groups).[iii]

CHEW providing Essential Services

The USAID report on Nigeria’s essential services shows major challenges in health equity.1

  • Coverage is low for reproductive health, maternal health, and immunization varies widely and is strongly associated with wealth, education level, and rural versus urban place of residence.
  • On some measures, health services coverage among populations with urban residence is more than double the coverage among populations with rural residence.
  • Only about 30% of women in the poorest households receive at least one antenatal care visit, compared to over 90 percent of woman in the wealthiest households, with service coverage steeply increasing along with wealth.
  • Coverage of most key preventive and curative health services is relatively low with large disparities in geopolitical zones, between rural and urban zones, and with regard to socioeconomic status; the poorest fifth of the population are much less likely to receive medical services than their counterparts in the wealthiest 20 percent of the population.

USAID’s Health Financing and Governance Project,1 helped group the Essential Package of Care into three “service delivery modes”:

  • family-oriented, community-based services that can be delivered on a daily basis by trained community health, nutrition or sanitation promoters with periodic supervision from skilled health staff;
  • population- oriented, schedulable services that require health workers with basic skills (e.g. auxiliary nurses/midwives and other paramedical staff) and that can be delivered either by outreach or in health facilities in a scheduled way; and
  • individually oriented clinical services that require health workers with advanced skills (such as registered nurses, midwives or physicians) available on a permanent basis.

These modes come along with recommended actions which could be interventions like safe water for the family or drugs like antibiotics for child pneumonia. Therefore, at present the package focuses more on essential interventions (than essential medicines) for groups such as adolescents, pregnant women, women in childbirth, and infants and children among other populations to be reached with of RMNCH services (reproductive, maternal, neonatal, and child health). In conclusion, Nigeria has articulated its PHC service delivery in terms of what, how and where, but has some ways to go in articulating a clear essential package across the life span and ensuring equitable access to and provision of these services across the country and among all income groups.


[i] Wright, Jenna (2016), ESSENTIAL PACKAGE OF HEALTH SERVICES COUNTRY SNAPSHOT: NIGERIA. United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Health Finance and Governance Project (Abt Associates). https://www.hfgproject.org/essential-package-of-health-services-country-snapshot-nigeria/

[ii] National Primary Health Care Development Agency (2015) NATIONAL STANDING ORDERS FOR COMMUNITY HEALTH OFFICERS/COMMUNITY HEALTH EXTENSION WORKERS, Revised By CHPRBN IN COLLABORATION WITH NPHCDA. Nigeria Federal Ministry of Health, Abuja.

[iii] Brieger WR. PHC: in search of a system that works. Africa Health 1987; 10: 30 31,26.

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