Deputy Minister of Health Nguyen Thi Kim Tien last week reported that, every year, Vietnamese citizens spend up to US$1 billion on treatment at hospitals in Singapore.
Tien noted that while foreign medical expertise is not significantly better than Vietnam's, they have a definite edge over us as far as marketing and bedside manners go.
I once had a chance to visit a hospital in Singapore and found that treatment was very expensive. Still, rich Vietnamese are willing to pay millions or even billions of dong there, whether they are suffering from serious or minor medical problems.
For example, while circumcision, a minor surgery, can be conducted in Vietnam at very low cost, some people book a flight to Singapore to have it done there at relatively prohibitive costs.
A Singaporean health consultant told me that besides life-threatening diseases like cancer, some Vietnamese people fly to the city-state to get treatment even when they happen to slip and sustain a slight injury.
It is obvious that besides good quality treatment of illnesses, patients feel far more comfortable and satisfied if they stay in a spacious room where doctors and nurses frequently ask about their condition with a caring and warm attitude, or even smile every time they see you.
It is also clear that such simple things as smiles and caring gestures are very rare in Vietnamese hospitals. These simple things are sometimes so luxurious that money can't buy them here.
A high-income patient who recently received treatment for his broken leg at the Viet Duc Hospital in Hanoi said he was willing to pay more to get a proper room, but ended up staying in a room with more than 20 other patients. It was impossible to ask doctors specific questions about his condition, he said.
Some people blame the apparent lack of bedside manners on the fact that there are just too many patients. "How can doctors and nurses give you a smile when they examine some 100 patients and operate on a couple every day?" they ask.
There's that, but I think the Vietnamese take on the doctor-patient relationship is an important factor.
A recent survey conducted by the Hanoi Medical University showed that most doctors consider themselves people who treat patients instead of "service providers."
Because they think they are the givers and patients are the receivers, or the beneficiaries, they see no point in giving patients anything else besides treatment.
Take, for instance, the latest health scandal in which a 17-year-old girl died from brain trauma sustained at a hospital in the southern province of Ca Mau last month.
According to Duong Thi Thu Huyen's family, she was in a coma when she was brought to the Nam Can Town's hospital early morning on June 28, but a doctor who was on duty was barely interested in examining her. He kept telling her relatives that she was okay.
Her grandmother said she even went down on her knees and begged the doctor to save Huyen, or to transfer her to a provincial hospital. But the doctor insisted that Huyen was okay and even implied that she was just pretending. He ignored the distraught old woman and returned to his office to catch up on his sleep.
The girl died a few hours later from brain injuries.
Because the doctor believes he is doing the patient a favor, his sleep has priority over the latter's needs.
The simple truth is this: While Vietnam does not lag too far behind in terms of medical technology knowledge and expertise, the healthcare staff here, most of the time, seem to lack the elementary courtesies that show patients that doctors and nurses care for you.
A minor shortcoming? We could say that. Yet it is one that is making Vietnam hemorrhage $1 billion every year.