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In Pursuit of Happiness in Vietnam

(Note: I’m not a medical professional and am only giving personal opinions on some Cambodian medical services and quality though my eyes as a local here.)

The title might sound a little too exaggerated by me – but given the fact that increasing number of Cambodian patients flock to some of nearly 100 hospitals in Ho Chi Minh nearly every month, I can say that “good” medical care or service is hard to find in Cambodia. And, Vietnam is only 6 hours away by bus or just almost an hour by plane. It is definitely an easier, closer and more affordable option most Cambodians can have. If there is really good medical care here, it is usually unaffordable for many Cambodians. Medical tourism isn’t a new thing in Southeast Asia or other parts of the world, but a lot of people would wonder, why doesn’t the private sector, the government, non-governmental organisation do something about it?

The travel across the border to another country for medical examination or care describes the desperate need of Cambodian people for a better healthcare system and services in Cambodia itself.

As estimated, hundreds of thousands of Cambodian families travel by bus or flight to Saigon or Ho Chi Minh for medical examination, medication, and small or big surgery. Middle-class Cambodians often opt for Vietnam while wealthier families fly to Thailand, Singapore or some other developed countries in Asia and Europe for better cures.

I’ve also heard of rich Cambodians flying a hospital crew from Singapore or Thailand to come and treat their sick relatives.

Why not Cambodia?

Cambodia’s medical system is quite poor and has so far confronted a lack of qualified doctors and a shortage of medical facilities in most of the hospitals inside and outside the capital, Phnom Penh. Medical doctors’ ethics and skills have been criticised and debated in the public for years.

Cambodia is still notorious for corruption and poverty, and education wise, many students including those at medical schools still pay for degrees or certificates. Please don’t believe in certificates hung at clinics or hospitals [warning!] They can get you wrong. A shortage of good medical equipment and infrastructure throughout the country also makes people wary of putting much trust in Cambodian doctors.

That said, there are still good people out there who are working hard to shed the bleak picture of Cambodian medical system. A hospital like Kantha Bopha, a public pediatric hospital, which I thought highly of, although it has some weird policy toward foreign patients, saved many children’s lives during the outbreak of Hand, Foot, Mouth Disease. It killed at least 52 children. The real culprit behind the disease is Enterovirus 71 (EV71). Read this wall street article to learn about the case.

However, after spending almost an hour talking to one of the top management at Kantha Bopha hospital back in 2012, instead of being convinced that some of his staff lacked manners and ethics, the manager (European) turned a deaf ear and blind eye to what I said.

As a person who used to spend some money from my own pocket to fund Kantha Bopha hospital’s initiative to cure many Cambodian babies, I felt that very moment with the manager and his staff dashed my hope about the sanity of the hospital and some of its staff.

Admittedly, it is hard especially for him and Beat Richner, the only two expatriate staff members employed at the hospital to manage that many medical personnel and point fingers at every bad behaviour by the staff towards patients or their families. Yet if there is room to improve, then why wouldn’t the hospital come out to acknowledge and improve? A year or two later, I noticed a few local news reports about this very negative point (about the hospital staff).

Besides Calmette hospital, a public one managed by the Ministry of Health, the rest you can find are private clinics which people should be wary and cynical about. Good ones like the Royal Rattanak, International SOS Medical, Srey Lyvina Clinic, and American Medical Centre here cannot be afforded by the local people. Time to face the truth.

Where do the poor go when they are sick?

If you are asking this question too, then you’re on the right track. My observation tells me that either they pretend they aren’t ill or live with the illness. Many don’t meet doctors though they are very sick just because they aren’t able to pay for medical bills or they don’t have confidence in some private clinics.

The sad news is that it can get really tough in provinces where no hospitals but only “health referrals” can be found, sometimes almost unreachable by villagers. A shortage of electricity in many areas simply tells that doing surgery in those places isn’t a wise idea and is almost impossible. Most of the health referrals I’ve heard of lack facilities and might just have paracetamol tablets for everything.

What about my family? Where do we go?

After having seen several Khmer heart doctors at public and private hospitals, my dad decided that it was best to go to another country and try his luck. He called his medical problem “one of the most expensive things he’s ever spent on.” He has heart problems, and needs to visit the doctors once every two months. Thailand would be even a more expensive option.

It has been almost 5 years today that he’s seen Vietnamese doctors at “215” or “Jarey” hospital in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam (perhaps a wrong spelling of the hospital name). Each visit does not cost him an arm and a leg, and better yet, he started to feel better! He learnt about the hospital through a recovering friend who had a similar heart condition and recommended a Khmer-Vietnamese translator for my dad.

Our translator

This uncle (in the picture) has helped my dad interact with Vietnamese doctors and purchased right medicine for my dad, of course as prescribed by the doctors. The old gentleman left Cambodia for Vietnam after the civil war (1975-1979) was over. Married to a Vietnamese lady with several children and grandchildren, he said that he wouldn’t want to come back to Cambodia, especially to the painful memories. That’s the interesting bit he told us.

Cambodians’ quest for better treatment also generates a lot of income in Ho Chi Minh. Cambodian families often stay behind or near a popular hospital like “215” when they go see doctors there. I observed that some of the restaurants there use Khmer signs to attract the Cambodian patients.

where we stay – khmerized neighbourhood in HCM

Most travel by bus, and their preferred bus companies are Mekong Express Bus, Mai Linh, and other bus companies include Sapaco Tourist, Phnom Penh Sorya, Paramount Angkor Express, Van Rec Co, Kumho Samco. Read this bus review on Trip Advisor.

Registering for medical checkup at 215

I remember I visited “215” hospital once in 2008 when my dad arrived here for the first time. Their doctors looked concerned when they discovered my father had quite serious heart problems. They took one whole day to examine him.
At the hospital, I noticed a lot of young nurses dressed in white uniforms. The hospital was quite big and had a lot of departments. For now, medical treatment in Vietnam is pretty much better than that in Cambodia, but you also need to find out from people which ones they trust more as well. My dad said that if we can afford more, he’ll definitely hit the road to Thailand next.

Read Casey Nelson’s take on medical care in Cambodia.

Buying medicine

Sometimes I wonder when the integration of ASEAN will happen, because I just hope that it will bring in people with good skills and knowledge related to medicine and several other things.

10 thoughts on “In Pursuit of Happiness in Vietnam

  1. Haha. This was the topic of our conversation the other. Glad you wrote about it. I hope your dad gets better soon.

  2. Just another add on to this post, there is a state hospital in Thailand which also serves well. It’s called Ramathibodi Hospital, that’s where I normally go with my mum. Its specialty is in cancer; however, many people go there for health check as well.

    The weakness of this hospital is that it takes you about 6 hours to finish everything as first you need to register and get a card. After you receive the card, you no longer need to come to this section when you come later. Second, you need to meet a receptionist for blood pressure checked and your weight weighed, and they will ask general questions about your symptom – then, they make an appointment for you to meet a specialized doctor.

    Doctors don’t normally scare you with your disease. They try to comfort you with their words – we can trust them. Unlike here, doctors scare us to death.

    My mum went through an x-ray which cost about 20$ while it may cost us 80% to 100$ here in Cambodia. Everything is cheaper and better there. Ask me more if you are interested.

  3. Thank you, BC. That is an unbearably long way to go. @Sopha: thanks for your comment. We really do. 🙁 @Bong Mongkol: yes, I’m glad that I found enough time to write about it. 🙁 I want to make it into a bigger story and get it published in one of the Dailies. 🙁 @Vuthy: thanks for your suggestion. What you said is right. Doctors here like scaring patients into paying more money for “nothing”. 🙁

  4. Have you ever wondered that most of Cambodian youth don’t look for career path in medical or health care industry. If not young people have passion in making changes, who would do this to improve your hospital services. In Vietnam, we also have ethnical questions for our doctors as well as hospital facilities/services which are very poor. In your case, we also have to accommodate many Cambodians coming to Vietnam for health care too. And the same question is still posed for Vietnam: how can the poor has a better treatment when they have to go to hospitals for health. If you wanna have a bed in a busy hospital, you need to pay extra money and also have connection with nurses or doctors.
    For me, skills or knowledges don’t matter much for a doctor, but moral is a must for the doctor even when he is working in poor conditions.

  5. I’ve been living in Cambodia for about 3 years and unlucky enough to have had 2 hospital stays in that time! (I’ve never stayed in hospital before and Cambodia was my first time!) The first I had typhoid and stayed in the Calmette Hospital. I was quite out of it and didn’t really know what was going on, I had a Cambodian friend visit every day. He bought food and translated for me. When we got the bill, I found all these tests that were done (apparently while I was asleep!) that I couldn’t remember. They said it was because I was sick. Then we asked what was the problem, and the doctor wouldn’t tell me anything until we paid. I said I wouldn’t pay until at least I was told what the problem was. We ended up waiting for nearly 1 hour, he came back, muttered the word ‘typhoid’ and we paid and went. I won’t be going back!

    About 1 year ago, I got appendicitis. I was advised to go to Calmette, but refused and found a private hospital. It’s near the russian boulevard and kampuchea krom. I forget the name now (my age is catching up on me!). It was $500 flat fee, with no hidden extras and the doctor trained in Korea. It was a fantastic service and everything went well.

    I wouldn’t however, venture to Bangkok if I got any thing more serious in the future. Touch wood, i’ve been fine for 2 years now!

  6. It is an interesting issue in Cambodia. I think what You say is true with which I totally agree. If we range the affordable and especially reliable hospital among the possible hospitals which Cambodian can reach is: 1st Ho Chi Minh, 2nd Thailand, and 3th Singapore.

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