Since early this month five major hospitals in Hanoi have caused quite a stir with a campaign asking their health workers to refrain from receiving money offered by patients or their families who hope for better care in return.
However, I doubt that the practice, which is an act of bribery but a long custom at most Vietnamese hospitals, would be stopped by one "say no to envelopes" campaign. The initiative was named so because such bribes are often given in envelopes.
Several studies have shown that many don't just give money because doctors ask. Many also initiate the giving because they believe that it will help their sick relatives receive good care or save them from long lines for treatment at crowded hospitals.
They pay any doctor, nurse and other health workers involved in the treatment of their relatives VND50,000 (US$2.39) for a nurse whenever she gives an injection, VND1 million ($47.89) for each doctor who attends a surgery"¦ Even people who are in charge of replacing blankets are paid.
The practice is common because patients and their families are intimidated by the fact that doctors and nurses, surrounded by thousands of patients, can barely give enough care to each patient. In fact, it has been reported that at big crowded hospitals, a doctor conducts checkups on 80-100 patients per day.
Then, why don't patients choose other hospitals that are less crowded? Health clinics and hospitals are available in most districts across Vietnam, aren't they?
The truth is that even if patients want to get out of crowded hospitals where 45 percent of patients are found dissatisfied with health workers' attitudes and administrative procedures according to a recent survey by the Vietnam National Union of Health Workers they won't do so.
Compared to local hospitals and health clinics where malpractice often occurs and is commonly fatal big hospitals with experienced doctors are still better.
That's why although they are poor and live hundreds kilometers away, many people still choose major hospitals in the big cities.
So, to eliminate the infamous practice of bribery in the Vietnamese healthcare industry, there are many more important things that the government must do outside its promotional campaign.
Related agencies, for example, need to put more investment into health clinics and preventive health centers in districts, communes and elsewhere at the local level.
They also need to target one of the major problems that has plagued the Vietnamese healthcare industry over years: the shortage of healthcare workers, especially at small health clinics. Better salaries and working conditions will also help attract more student applicants to medical schools, and will also help keep them from feeling they need to solicit bribes from their patients.
The bribery will only stop when all people are provided with equally good treatment and conditions.