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Vietnamese cardiologists do nation proud, but cannot rest on their laurels

  A file picture shows Phi (C) training Thai doctors in the use of the device on a child patient last month. Photo: Andy Ng/

Vietnamese doctors do not just learn and receive help from their foreign colleagues. They are leading others in the region treating congenital heart defects.

A cardiology conference in Thailand late last month provided strong evidence.

Three Vietnamese doctors were lecturers and instructors at the one-day conference at the Songklanagarind Hospital in Songkhla Province, which gathered nearly 30 experts in congenital heart defects from Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Dr. Nguyen Lan Hieu of the Hanoi Medical University, Dr. Do Nguyen Tin, a pediatric cardiologist from Ho Chi Minh City, and Germany-based Le Trong Phi joined Thai doctors in making presentations. But the three doctors were the only ones demonstrating actual procedures, the Saigon Tiep Thi said in a recent report.

The conference was about using catheters in treating ventricular septal defect, which means a defect in the dividing wall between the two lower chambers of the heart. The condition can cause lung diseases by allowing oxygen-rich blood to pass from the left ventricle through the opening in the septum and mixing with oxygen-poor blood in the right ventricle. Then a larger volume of blood than normal must be handled by the right side of the heart, and extra blood then passes through the pulmonary artery into the lungs, causing higher pressure than normal in the blood vessels in the lungs.

Phi, deputy director of the Department of Congenital Heart Disease at the University of Hamburg, said when it comes to treatments for inborn heart defects, Vietnamese doctors are among the best in Southeast Asia.

"Vietnam's cardiological interventions in congenital defects have gone much further than other countries in the region," he told Saigon Tiep Thi.

"Vietnamese doctors are smart and skillful, and we started working on the techniques more than a decade ago." 

Dr Le Trong Phi is recognized as the developer of Nit-Occlud® Lê VSD, a flexible spiral coil system, that works as a percutaneous, transcatheter device for the closure of ventricular septal defects. Photo: Dieu Hien

The Children's Hospital No. 1, where Tin works, has diagnosed nearly 3,000 inborn heart defects since September 2009, and successfully intervened using catheters in 2,000 cases with widespread problems such as ventricular and atrial septal defects; patent ductus arteriosus in which a neonate's ductus arteriosus fails to close after birth; and pulmonary valve stenosis in which outflow of blood from the right ventricle of the heart is obstructed at the level of the pulmonic valve.

Several doctors in Hanoi, trained in developed countries, started similar procedures much earlier, in 1996.

Tin said "using catheters allows a child to be discharged after one day and does not cause much pain or blood loss.

"An open surgery causes a lot of pain and needs blood donations from around five people and hospitalization of at least one week."

He said catheter-based techniques cost as much as or less than an open surgery.

Vietnam has at least 20 medical facilities that can intervene successfully to treat inborn heart defects using catheters.

Dr. Supaporn Roymanee, chief cardiologist at the Thai hospital, said the conference was for doctors in Thailand and other countries to learn from Vietnamese colleagues.

The three Vietnamese doctors were known by most people at the conference.

They recognized Phi as the developer of Nit-Occlud® Lê VSD, a flexible spiral coil system, working as a percutaneous, transcatheter device for the closure of ventricular septal defects.

It took him less than one hour to show Dr. Roymanee, chief cardiologist at the Thai hospital, how to use the device to occlude the defect in a three-year-old boy. An open surgery in the same case would have taken four hours, doctors said.

Hieu is known as one of the first doctors to utilize this procedure in Vietnam.

He has instructed many colleagues from Japan, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines at his Cardiology Center in Hanoi. He has also visited many states in India, passing on the valuable know-how.


4-month-old saved from rare heart defect

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Dr. Tin has also joined many teaching sessions to help doctors in Taiwan and Indonesia.

"Ten years ago, when I brought a patient to Thailand for heart treatment, doctors there knew almost nothing about Vietnamese doctors. But now they look at us with different eyes," he said, cited in the report.

Thai doctor Prakul Chaithong said at the conference that if he has a chance, he will go to Vietnam and study more about congenital heart defects from doctors there.

He also praised the Vietnamese government for offering free treatment to all children under six years of age, which allows doctors to have more cases and improve their knowledge and skills.

The doctor said the Thai government does not have a similar policy and families are reluctant to pay the cost themselves. Therefore, doctors then have few chances to practice and improve their skills, and rich people take their children abroad for treatment.

Thai doctors said patients with severe heart defects found in Thailand are usually sent abroad.

But the three doctors said Vietnam cannot afford to be complacent at this.

"If we're satisfied and stop here, we will be left far behind after a short time."

Dr. Tin also suggested that Vietnam's experts and government invest in further studies.

He said Thailand, for example, has made "good and clear" plans for development in the field. Many young doctors have been sent to the US, the UK and Australia to learn the hybrid procedure, a modern catheter-based technique, and they will develop it next year.

"This is a top-notch technique to treat extremely complicated cases like hypoplastic left heart syndrome (where the left ventricle of the heart is severely underdeveloped).

"Such cases need a coordination of open surgery and catheter-based techniques, instead of either of them."

The National Pediatrics Hospital in Hanoi last month said it had used an unfamiliar technique, the Norwood procedure, a complex heart surgery, for the first time to save a 4-month-old baby from hypoplastic left heart syndrome.

But most of the time, Hieu said, Vietnam has to send such cases abroad.

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