Social workers attempt to cheer up a child at Ho Chi Minh City Children's Hospital No.1
Vietnam was one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to include social work programs in its colleges, but the occupation has not been developed, nor is it perceived as a respected profession, experts said.
A recent Tuoi Tre report cited official data as saying that social workers started providing their services during the doi moi period in 1986, after which an economic boom was followed by social problems such as a widening gap between the rich and the poor, ethical family crises, drug use, prostitution and the spread of HIV/AIDS.
The activities of social workers have received support from international nonprofits such as UNICEF.
But social workers said they still function as charity providers, giving short-term support instead of providing an institutional structure to ensure beneficiaries more stable lives.
Some experts said Vietnam needs to establish an education system that meets international standards, a legal code that treats social work as a profession, and establish associations to represent the workers.
Tran Cong Binh, from UNICEF Vietnam, said several countries have set up a code of ethics and standards for social workers that adhere to guidelines established by the International Federation of Social Workers.
"Social work in Vietnam is only on its way to becoming a profession, as it lacks the legal framework and human resource training," he said.
According to Project 32, a government-approved plan to develop social work between 2010 and 2020, around 40 percent of Vietnam's population, or 32 million people, are in need of services provided by social workers in other countries.
The country has more than 32,000 social workers, but nearly 82 percent of them lack professional training, it said.
Ho Chi Minh City, the country's largest city and the one considered to be in the biggest need of social workers, employs more than 5,000 of them, though most are also untrained.
Experts said while Vietnam needs to improve the quality of its social workers, it also must give them some respect.
Le Thi My Hien, a social work lecturer at Ho Chi Minh City Open University, said that in addition to the large force of untrained social workers, more than 1,000 students major in social work have graduated nationwide, but few of them are paid under the official payment system.
Binh said a professional social worker is one that chooses the profession as their primary job and who follows the pertinent code of ethics, and can make a living at it without taking supplementary jobs.
He said UNICEF is helping Vietnam's Ministry of Social Affairs set up a campaign to raise public's awareness of social work as a profession instead of mere charity.
He said the country needs to promote the role and status of social workers, developing quality networks for much-needed help in areas such as child protection, psychological counseling at schools, medical care, and support for the disabled and victims of abuse.
Le Chu Giang, head of social welfare unit of HCMC department of social affairs, said social workers have formed many groups in Vietnam already, around 500, and they just need to be linked together.
Link needed between doctors and patients
Dr. Do Hong Ngoc, known for his interest in the spiritual and social impacts on health with his many writings on the topic, said the healthcare sector is among those in the greatest need of social workers.
The Ho Chi Minh City-based doctor cited the World Health Organization's definition of health as "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."
Thus, when people come to hospital for treatment, not only their sickness needs to be taken care of, but also their worries and depression resulting from their daily activities and social relations being upset, he said, cited by Tuoi Tre.
He said he had seen social workers wearing pink uniforms, compared to doctors' white, at the city Children's Hospital No.1 as early as in the 1960s, and he was happy knowing that the service has been maintained for the past years.
They talk, sing, paint and play with the children, while consulting parents and helping them find financial support when necessary.
Some other hospitals in the city, such as the Children's Hospital No.2, the HCMC Oncology Hospital, also employ social workers.
But he said that is as far as it has gone.
A recent research by the Health Strategy and Policy Institute under the Health Ministry, presented in Ho Chi Minh City on December 17, said only five out of 22 major hospitals nationwide use social workers and there is no common set of guidelines they adhere to.
Most of the support has been limited to contributions of money, meals, or a place to stay, and few patients receive consultancy about their conditions or spiritual encouragement.
The research found many nurses at the hospitals double as de facto social workers, not those who have been trained in the field.
It said heavy loads of patients at hospitals, especially big ones, have "adversely affected the treatment quality," which could be improved by employing well-trained social workers.
Dr. Ngoc said doctors looking at sick people tend to see only the "sickness" part, and not the "human" part, thus doctors can only cure their disease, and not their overall suffering.
"Social workers, on the other hand, listen to the patients, show respect and empathize to help reduce their fear, clear their mind and give them confidence in order to make the right decisions (in difficult moments of their life)," he said.
"They're like an extension of the doctor's hand that reaches the patients' humanity."
He said that role must be filled by qualified social workers who are honest, fair and respectful, know how to share and listen, and adhere to the medical code of ethics.
Like us on Facebook and scroll down to share your comment