Lack of oversight that allows false advertising on TV a major part of the problem, experts say
Health inspectors rummage through a Chinese-owned clinic in Ho Chi Minh City. Many such clinics have been found employing unlicensed and unqualified doctors and selling illegal medicines.
Nguyen Van Binh had hemorrhoid surgery at the Trung Quoc (Chinese) Clinic in Ho Chi Minh City last week after learning about the facility through its TV commercials.
"They had said that I had to pay VND9.8 million (US$471) but later said they would only guarantee that the problem would not reoccur if I agreed to pay several million more for some intravenous infusions," said the 42-year-old patient from Kien Giang Province.
Binh said he only found out that the clinic was in fact not licensed to perform such an operation after it was raided by city health officials on June 18.
The raid came after Nguyen Thi My Hanh complained to authorities that the clinic had held her against her will to squeeze more money out of her for dodgy treatments.
Following a Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper article about Hanh's story, HCMC health inspectors launched a large-scale inspection and found violations at many Chinese-owned clinics in the city.
Binh and Hanh are only two of many patients who claim to have been used, abused and ripped off at HCMC's Chinese-owned clinics, most of which flood local TV stations with advertisements.
Many of the clinics are unlicensed and are employing unlicensed "Chinese doctors," many of whom have no training and are performing illegal procedures they are unqualified for at facilities unequipped for the operations, according to recent inspections by city health authorities.
A 30-year-old patient from HCMC's Phu Nhuan District who wanted to be identified only as T. said he had a hemorrhoid surgery at the Chinese Clinic on June 17 after watching TV ads claiming that the clinic provided operations that entail no pain.
"They offered a price range between VND2.8 million and VND30 million. I chose the lowest price but the doctor advised me to choose VND9.8 million for treatment with better medical equipment," said T.
"Unlike what they claimed, the procedure was really painful. They also continued to persuade me to pay more for extra services like intravenous infusions," he said.
Like Binh, T. said he did not know that the clinic was operating illegally.
Pham Kim Binh, acting chief inspector of the HCMC Health Department, told Vietweek that there has been a surge in medical regulation violations by Chinese-owned clinics recently. He said the clinics were also now using "more cunning ploys."
"We encourage residents and the media to report any such violations," he said.
On June 17, Tuoi Tre reported that Nguyen Thi My Hanh had been detained by the Chinese Clinic at a nearby hotel from June 10-16 after she did not have enough money to pay the nearly VND40 million ($1,923) bill for her infertility treatment.
Hanh said the clinic had promised that she could pay later. Her captors Chinese Clinic employees only released her after her family reported the incident to the police.
On June 24, health inspectors said they issued a fine of VND46 million against the Chinese Clinic. They reported they had seized and destroyed illegal medicines and had temporarily revoked the license of the Chinese doctor who runs the clinic. Foreign doctors in Vietnam have to obtain a special license from the Ministry of Health to work here.
Inspectors said the facility had only one licensed Chinese doctor but was employing several other unregistered medical practitioners. Other violations included supplying unregistered medical services, selling illegal drugs, exaggerated claims of treatments' effectiveness, and even misdiagnosis and mistreatment.
Similar violations were also found at other Chinese-invested clinics including An Khang, Dong Phuong, Trung Nam and Dam Sen.
According to Le Minh Hai, head of the private clinic management branch at the HCMC Health Department, only 13 licensed private clinics have legal Chinese doctors in the city.
However, a recent investigation by Tien Phong (Vanguard) newspaper found that these clinics were also employing unlicensed medical practitioners as doctors.
Binh, the health inspector, also said that seven Chinese-owned clinics inspected in 2011 had also been found employing unlicensed doctors.
Slap on the wrist
Vu Anh Son, head of HCMC Department of Health's District 10 Medical Center, said many Chinese-owned clinics did not hesitate to violate the law for profit because they do not fear the lax enforcement and lenient punishments associated with such laws.
Several clinics that have been fined between VND15 million-VND30 million each for violations like employing unlicensed Chinese doctors over the past several years were found again with similar breaches during last week's inspection.
A doctor at a public hospital in HCMC, who asked to remain anonymous, said a Chinese-owned clinic earned more than the fines by simply offering illegal treatment for just one or two patients.
"There should be stricter punishment. The fine is too little in comparison with the benefit these clinics gain from offering unregistered services," he said.
On Monday, the Dam Sen Clinic shut down after inspectors found violations there.
The Sai Gon Giai Phong (Liberated Saigon) newspaper quoted unnamed sources saying that the clinic is connected to Pham Huu Quoc, an inspector at the HCMC Health Department, who informs the clinic of any inspections.
The paper contacted Quoc but he refused to comment, saying the department management did not authorize him to talk to the press.
In an interview with Tuoi Tre on June 23, Health Minister Nguyen Thi Kim Tien said she had asked health agencies nationwide to administer inspections and revoke the licenses of Chinese-owned clinics found with serious or repeat violations.
A survey by Tuoi Tre found that most patients duped by the Chinese-owned clinics in HCMC found the facilities through frequent TV commercials.
Experts say the ads feature exaggerated claims and/or outright lies and false advertising and need to be stopped. The ads often claim that the clinics can conduct surgeries by Chinese doctors while in reality these are unlicensed doctors and the clinics do not have the proper facilities to conduct safe surgeries.
Currently, the health department must approve all clinics' TV advertisements and the TV stations must simply ensure the ads that they run have been approved.
Le Van Bich, director of Long An Information and Communications Department, said his agency has repeatedly asked the Long An Television Station to stop broadcasting advertisements by Chinese-owned clinics, to no avail.
He said his agency could not take further action because the provincial health department is responsible for approving and managing the advertisement of health services.
In Binh Duong, another province adjacent to HCMC, director of the provincial Information and Communications Department said he would ask the Binh Duong Television Station to stop broadcasting such advertisements.
Dao Kim Phu, southern office director of the department of broadcasting and electronic information management, said his agency was coordinating with health agencies to inspect TV ads by Chinese-owned clinics and find out who is responsible for the false advertisements.
"We will issue punishment if the stations broadcast unapproved advertisements," he said, adding that some TV stations do not check ads before broadcasting. In such situations, advertisers are free to change their ads after getting approval from authorities.
Phu said he was aware of rumors that some TV stations sold ad breaks to brokers who then sold the space to advertisers without anyone, neither broker nor TV station, checking if the content was approved by health authorities or not.
"This is totally illegal and the TV station director is responsible," said Phu.