by Khanh Van
In a famous short story by Indian Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, a doctor famous for his skills as well as his forthrightness confronts a dilemma.
A close friend is critically ill and has no hope of survival. The patient wants to know the truth, and is confident that his friend, the doctor, will tell him what the real situation is.
The doctor, who never hesitates to tell everyone the truth about their survival chances, is unable to tell his friend he is going to die. He breaks his rule and lies to his friend. The patient, confident that the doctor never lies, believes he will survive, and he does, much to the doctor's amasement.
I was reminded of this story when Health Minister Nguyen Thi Kim Tien called on medical workers to treat patients like kings and queens at a national conference on hospital quality several days ago.
However, the spate of medical scandals that have filled the media recently and from my own personal experiences, the minister's request will take a long, long time to come true.
As a recent patient, I was very annoyed when some medical workers indicated they were doing me a big favour, although I had paid for their services. And I could see them display this attitude towards patients who are of the same age of the medical workers' parents.
Last month I took my son to a State-owned hospital for a heath check-up. When I asked a nurse the way to the hospital's ultrasound section, she said: "Can't you read? Everything is written on the sign boards." I was shocked that this happens when hospital corridors carry slogans that say things like "Doctors treat patients like gentle mothers."
Some of the medical scandals that have rocked the nation of late bear recounting. In one scandal, a hospital was found to have given duplicated blood test results to thousands of patients, and in another, a doctor is said to have thrown the body of a patient into the river after she died on the operating table at his clinic. Two months later, the body has not been found.
It is obvious, therefore, that there is a huge gap between reality and the minister's wish that patients are treated like royalty.
I think that instead of having such noble ideals, we can take a more practical approach to this issue.
The issue is simple, actually. Patients are customers who pay for services and should be treated accordingly. This is true not only at private hospitals but also their public counterparts because the medical staff in the latter institutions cannot be paid if the public does not pay taxes. This is the business perspective.
The ethical perspective is even more important in the medical industry because it is the health and lives of people that are at stake. And as we saw in the story above, the attitude of medical staff towards the patients can have a significant impact on their health.
If the economy itself can be boosted by the "feel good" factor, what about patients who need it much more for their well being.
So it is unacceptable that instead of being nice to patients and helping ease their pain, the unfriendly attitude of medical staff makes a bad situation worse.
Many conferences have been held and leaders of the health sector have worked to find measures to improve medical services at all hospitals, but there has been no significant improvement in the situation.
News reports earlier this year said the health ministry held the first training course for medical workers at some public hospitals on how to say "Thank you" to patients. Such initiatives are not going to have much impact if the medical staff do not feel the gratitude in their hearts.
Many patients are choosing to have their health check ups done abroad, as also treatment for various ailments, because they are assured of better service.
However, when 70 per cent of the country's population earn their livelihood from agricultural production with an annual income of VND20 million (US$952), how many can afford to do this, or even go to private hospitals in the country?
The answer can be seen in the overloading at public hospitals nationwide.
Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam recently remarked that people had several needs at hospitals, some of which can be paid for. There are other needs, sentimental ones, that have to be met without payment, for instance, the need to be treated well and to feel the goodwill of medical workers.
So, while the initiatives to have medical workers thank us or treat us like kings and queens are appreciated, a much smaller start would be more useful - just treat patients like paying customers. — VNS