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Medical scandal puts whistleblower in spotlight

Update: December, 17/2013 - 08:48
Hoang Thi Nguyet, a 47-year-old medical tester at Hoai Duc General Hospital, after being honored by authorities in August for uncovering technicians giving duplicate blood test results to more than 2,000 patients over a 10-month period. The scandal was one of the biggest to make headlines this year. — VNS Photo Viet Nguyen

by Thu Huong Le

HA NOI (VNS)— Few things could have prepared Hoang Thi Nguyet for being caught at the center of one of the biggest scandals to rock the nation's health sector this year.

Back in August, the 47-year-old medical staffer at Hoai Duc General Hospital became the chief whistle-blower of a major medical cover-up at the suburban hospital, where technicians had replicated around 1,149 blood test results over a 10-month period. The copied records were then distributed to around 2,000 patients.

The scandal has sparked a nationwide outcry from angry patients furious over being given inaccurate health information and being charged for unnecessary medical tests, as was revealed by police findings.

For Nguyet, the road to revealing the truth was not easy. It was a long journey where she and her colleagues had to overcome intense pressure to bring the gross misconduct to the public's attention.

"I was scared but I was determined to denounce the wrong-doers," Nguyet recalled recently in an interview at 19-8 Hospital in Cau Giay District, where she's now studying further into medical testing. "But I knew I did not do anything wrong. I was not afraid of losing my job."

The misconduct traces back to around July 2012. According to Nguyet, at the time, the medical testing unit at Hoai Duc Hospital was divided into two sections. Nguyet and some of her senior colleagues were prohibited from being involved in the daily medical testing of patients.

The ten-member testing unit had to receive between 200 and 300 outpatients a day and perform between 1,000-2,000 blood tests.

"Suddenly we were not allowed to do our job and this created suspicion," Nguyet said.

"And all of our normal duties were performed by temporary staff who are mostly recent graduates. Somehow, they were managing to return results to patients only an hour later. We knew it was impossible."

She and another colleague were determined to find out the truth, noticing even that some of the blood samples were being discarded and patients given duplicate results despite their differing ages and conditions.

For several days, the two secretly recorded the process of technicians not following proper medical procedures and spent months checking the record to make sure that they collected the right evidence.

"We knew they would duplicate the results not in any pattern so it took many days to figure them out," she said, adding: "it was very tiring".

At first, Nguyet said she and some of her senior colleagues did not immediately want to turn in the evidence to the media and authorities.

"We knew the general director of the hospital was complicit in this and it was difficult to make him take responsibility for this," she said. "We tried asking the staff to correct the procedure but no one listened. I knew I had to take it further."

Eventually, some of her colleagues agreed to sign the 18-page letter accusing the general director of the hospital Nguyen Tri Liem and other staff members of intentionally violating medical practices. The group notified health authorities and the police.

"I was grateful that media involvement helped speed up the case. Before the media knew about this, we waited and waited in vain," Nguyet said.

Khuat Thi Dinh, another colleague at the hospital who also followed the case and signed the letter, said it took a lot of courage for a typical staff member like Nguyet to do that.

"She is an extremely determined person. When this ordeal became too stressful, we often asked whether we, a bunch of female staff, were doing the right thing," Dinh said.

One of Nguyet's colleagues even had to withdraw her signature due to pressure from family members who felt that she would be in danger. Stress also came from threats from the former general director, who was later removed from the post, and possible reprisals.

Following investigations, 10 people were prosecuted in the case, including the general director, in August. Authorities also rewarded Nguyet and two other persons in her team each VND320,000 (US$15) plus a certificate of merit from the health department of Ha Noi.

The patients who received falsified results were also offered free check ups, while the case has also prompted discussion at top-level meetings about the need to protect whistleblowers in corruption cases.

Nguyet said she had not been motivated by financial rewards, but felt she had helped improve medical testing across the country. The case has even received attention from National Assembly deputies and the Prime Minister.

Now, she is referred to as Nguyet Hoai Duc, named after the hospital.

"People who work in medical testing told me that after this, they were ordered by their respective hospitals to follow stricter procedures," she said.

"Hearing that, I felt my hard work had paid off." — VNS

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