Vietnam doctors struggle to save lives in trying conditions

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Dr Diep Bao Tuan says he is often reminded of a crowded market place when he sees the scores of patients at Vietnam's premier cancer treatment facility.

Speaking about the massive load on the Ho Chi Minh City Oncology Hospital, Tuan, who has been working at the hospital for more than 20 years, says: "The priority is to ease the overload for the patients."

Cramped in a makeshift room in a corridor, Tuan has prepared drafts for a project to ease the situation.

A number of measures have indeed been taken, including opening the hospital earlier in the morning, working during the noon break and weekends, applying IT, and cooperating with provincial and district hospitals.

But all this has helped to merely slowdown the worsening of the situation. It is common for two patients to share a bed. Often they only stay in the bed when doctors come for examination, with one otherwise lying on a mat on the floor somewhere next to the bed or along the corridor or simply sitting on the stairs.

The hospital's 213 doctors are now treating 1,807 inpatients and 9,510 outpatients. More than 1,600 new patients come to the hospital for examination every day.

Le Hoang Minh, the hospital's director, says he has asked hospitals in District 9 for all their empty rooms and beds to ease the overloading by 10-15 percent.

Tuoi Tre spent a day in examination room No. 3 with three doctors and a nurse to witness their daily work.

The nurse, who opened the room at 6 a.m. and began to check the files of outpatients coming for examination, said it was not the most crowded day of the week.

In a room of about three meters by five meters are four tables for the doctors and nurse and a dozen plastic chairs for waiting patients.

The specialized room for checking thyroid problems has no modern equipment and doctors examine the patients with their hands. Each of them has a computer to record data and print out prescriptions.

The nurse picks one from a tall stack of files by the door, calls the patient in to record the blood pressure before handing over the file to the doctors.

Outside, more than a thousand patients and their relatives jostle for places. Some impatient ones begin to argue, others complain about having to wait too long, some take a nap on a bench.

A speaker regularly issues warnings about pickpockets even as sweating patients wait with a mixture of anxiety, sadness, and distress.

In the room, the three doctors are working non-stop.

Vo Tuan, one of them, examines a patient's neck to see if there is a tumor. He asks just basic questions like where it hurts and since when before deciding if the patient needs to be admitted or just medicines.

While waiting for the printer to print a prescription, he quickly takes another file and begins examining the next patient. Each patient sees the doctor for just around a minute and there is no time for them to ask any questions.

The room closes at 11:50 after the doctors examine 330 patients. It opens again at 1 p.m., and remains open until late afternoon.

The situation is the same at the HCMC Traumatology and Orthopedics Hospital where patients -- and their relatives -- take up every vantage point as they wait to be examined.

Everyone works from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. without a break, examining up to 300 patients.

According to a report from the hospital, a patient has to wait between one and eight weeks for surgery and sometimes up to a year in complicated cases.

"We have 140 doctors and 14 surgery rooms," the hospital director Tran Thanh My says.

"Many patients have to wait but we do not know what else to do."

The director's room is near the stairs and always noisy, with scores of patients outside. Many impatient patients knock on the door to ask him about their situation and relevant procedures and My unfailingly replies to them.

"I have been here for 30 years and got used to it."

Many doctors at the hospital asked the Tuoi Tre correspondent if he was tired after watching them, though it was for a very short time, work in old rooms without modern equipment.

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