Tran Thi Mau arrived at Ho Chi Minh City’s Cho Ray Hospital at around 2 a.m. on Monday (July 7) to get in line early.
Even at that early hour, the 58-year-old woman from Long An Province’s Can Giuoc District ended up drawing number 1,800--meaning she had to wait for 1,799 earlier patients to be treated before she could see a doctor about a flare up of her cirrhosis.
“I am so tired for waiting. It is so difficult to breathe. There’s no air here!” she told Thanh Nien News at around 9am while waiting amid a crowd of patients gathered outside the hospital’s examination ward.
Hospital overloading has become a chronic problem in Vietnam’s major cities due to drags and delays in new hospital construction.
Meanwhile, a plan to promote the use of family doctors who make regular house calls, remains in the trial stages.
Big hospitals, big problems
Vietnam's high-caliber hospitals are mostly located in major cities.
These "central-level" hospitals are directly managed by the health ministry and are known to employ the country's best doctors; their specialized wards and modern equipment tend to draw patients from outlying provinces.
Dr Nguyen Truong Son, director of Cho Ray Hospital in HCMC, said they examine more than 4,000 out-patients a day, in addition to treating over 400 in-patients.
“Many patients have to share beds on crowded days, despite our efforts to add more beds,” he said.
Nguyen Mai, a 50-year-old resident of Quang Ngai province, travelled more than 830 kilometers (515 miles) from the central province to seek treatment for his liver problem at Cho Ray.
“No one wants to go here all the way from some remote area to be examined,” he told Thanh Nien News.
“But [health facilities] in my area aren't trustworthy. Still, it's a hardship to wait so long to be examined here,” he said.
According to Le Van Kham, deputy director of the Health Insurance Branch under the health ministry, many people do not trust in local hospitals.
“This has led to serious overloading at central hospitals. Apart from waiting for a long time, many patients end up being stressed out and confused by complicated hospital procedures,” he added.
Crowds of patients wait to be examined at Ho Chi Minh City's Cho Ray Hospital. Photo: Minh Hung
On July 7, Minister of Health Nguyen Thi Kim Tien sat down with officials at Ho Chi Minh City's three central-level hospitals to discuss solutions to overloading.
During her meeting with administrators from Cho Ray, Thong Nhat and the Medicinal and Pharmacological University hospitals, she pledged to find a way to discourage patients suffering minor ailments from flocking to their facilities.
“Up to 30 percent of patients examined at Cho Ray Hospital are out-patients, many of them are from nearby provinces and don't suffer from serious diseases; these individuals should be treated at local hospitals,” she said. “We should have a mechanism to make sure that only those suffering from serious ailments are admitted to central hospitals.”
Several hospitals have planned to build new facilities but their plans have progressed slowly.
The Tumor Hospital in HCMC got approval to build a new branch on Binh Thanh District’s Nguyen Huu Luong Street in 2004.
However, the site of the new facility remains a vacant plot due to complicated procedures.
I am so tired for waiting. It is so difficult to breathe. There’s no air here!” -- 58-year-old Tran Thi Mau said as she waited to be examined at the Cho Ray Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City
The hospital's director, Le Hoang Minh, said the project was estimated to cost VND76 billion in 2004.
However, the hospital asked to scrap the project in 2012 and plan a new one, citing rising costs and technology upgrades that made the initial plan obsolete.
After the hospital withdrew from the project, the city health department decided to proceed with its own VND242 billion project on the same site. However, that project remains on paper due to complicated administrative procedures.
Another project to build a 1,000-bed children's hospital in HCMC’s Binh Chanh District was slated to be completed in 2015.
However, the project remains stuck as local authorities have failed to reach an agreement on the compensation demands of the displaced residents.
Meanwhile, a plan to promote the "family doctor" model still remains in the trial stages.
Luong Ngoc Khue, director of the Medical Service Department, said the model could curb overloading at major hospitals.
Starting on July 15, the pilot project will be launched in eight cities and provinces, including Hanoi, HCMC, Hai Phong, Can Tho, Thai Nguyen, Thua Thien Hue, Khanh Hoa and Tien Giang.
“These family doctors will offer treatment [at home] and thus, prevent people suffering routine health problems from flooding major hospitals,” he said.