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Medicine or supplement? Patients confused

Update: July, 19/2017 - 09:00
The patient had to pay VNĐ2 million for supplements which she thought to be able to cure diseases due to unclear explanation from doctors. - Photo tuoitre.vn
Viet Nam News

HÀ NỘI — A 61-year-old patient recently treated for a skin disorder at the National Hospital of Dermatology and Venereology was aghast when she realised that 70 per cent of the money she spent buying her prescriptions were for a supplement that cost some VNĐ2 million (US$88).

The supplement was prescribed by her doctor in a separate "medicinal suggestion form", along with the prescription itself, with advice to "strictly follow doctor’s instructions, re-examine in case of abnormal symptoms".

“I thought the supplement was a medication, so I bought it,” she told Tuổi Trẻ (Youth) newspaper.

Doctors in some major hospitals in the capital city are causing confusion among patients when prescribing supplements without clearly explaining their nature and usage.

Not written on a separate document, supplements were included in the prescription form received by a resident of the capital’s Hoàn Kiếm District whenever she took her son to hospitals for medical exams.

“[The doctors] did not explain what types of vitamins they were, saying the child was ill so he needed the prescribed supplements. And they weren’t cheap at all,” she told  Việt Nam News.

“I only knew they were supplements when bringing the prescriptions to the drugstores,” she said. “The pharmacists told me it wasn’t compulsory for me to buy them.”

Most of the patients at the National Hospital of Dermatology and Venereology receive two types of forms after examinations: one prescription and one "medicinal suggestion form", according to Tuổi Trẻ.

The latter is where doctors suggest supplements and products that patients should use, including shampoos, shower gels, and body lotions. However, the title of the form does not clarify that it is not a prescription. The doctors often do not make it clear to patients that the additional products are not compulsory.

Not knowing how to discern supplements from medicines, many patients end up buying everything, even though the cost of supplements and additional products often make up two thirds of their total medical expenses.

Blurred lines

Although it is hard to validate the quality of all supplements in the market, some doctors still prescribe ones they found safe and effective, according to doctor Nguyễn Việt Anh from the Hà Nội Medical University Hospital.

However, the Ministry of Health has regulated that supplements must be prescribed in a separate form – not on the prescription, and this form must clarify that the products are supplements, not medicines.

“To include supplements in the prescription would be against the rule, since all types of medicines must go through several strict testing procedures before being sold,” he said.

Nguyễn Văn Thường, director of the National Hospital of Dermatology and Venereology, said a “technical issue” messed up the hospital’s "medicinal suggestion form".

“A printing error made patients think it was a prescription,” he told the Tuổi Trẻ. “We will correct the mistake and send written documents to doctors, asking them to explain to every patient what are medicines and what are supplements,” he said.

According to Thường, some 90 per cent of skin disorders require the use of vitamins, minerals and medicinal cosmetics – together with specialised medicines – for effective treatment, but in Việt Nam all vitamins and minerals are currently registered as supplements.   

Several types of specialised dermatological medicines are also registered as supplements, while in Việt Nam there is no difference between “medicinal cosmetics” and “beauty products”, he said.

“Those dermatological medicines were first registered as medicines when imported to Việt Nam, but then their registration expired, and they remained in the country as supplementary products,” he said. — VNS

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