By Mai Khuyên
When we, or our loved ones, have to undergo a surgery, we wish and pray that things go well.
Our anxiety is greater when it’s a major surgery, for instance, one that involves the eyes, brain, heart or spine.
Our prayers become more intense and we step up efforts to find the best doctor and best hospital possible.
Once this is done, we place our trust, and our fates, in the hands of our doctors and surgeons. Knowingly or otherwise, we give them a power that has to be wielded with utmost care and responsibility.
We also accept that being a doctor is to be part of one of the noblest professions. They are in the business of saving lives. Of course, they cannot save every life, and they are not held responsible for deaths that happen because a disease has progressed too far, or burns or other injuries are too critical.
In such cases, we accept that inscrutable fate has played a hand in taking our loved ones away.
However, such an acceptance cannot be extended to the sudden deaths of two patients on Sunday morning at the prestigious private Trí Đức General Hospital in central Hà Nội.
A 34-year-old man and a 37-year-old woman, reportedly died of anaphylactic shock (life-threatening allergic reaction) within 30 seconds of being anaesthetised.
Neither of the patients were undergoing emergency surgery for a life-threatening condition.
A few minutes before he was wheeled into the operation theatre, the male patient, who was about to have his tonsils removed, told his loved ones not to worry, that it was a very simple operation that would be over in no time.
The woman’s case was a bit more serious. She had a tumour in her thyroid gland. But she and her relatives expected that she would be home soon after getting it surgically removed at this prestigious hospital with highly qualified medical personnel.
When two people die at the same time while being anaesthetised, we cannot just wring our hands, say it was fate, grieve, and move on. We need to be objective and find out what happened.
Initial investigations reportedly show that two anesthetists in the teams of doctors, nurses and technicians that performed the surgery on the two patients were not on the hospital’s staff list. Their names are Phạm Thị Hương and Bùi Thị Kim Oanh.
We do not know much more about what happened and it is too early to say if it was the inclusion of these two anesthetists that was instrumental in the patients’ death.
We do know, however, that this is not the first time that the city’s healthcare sector has been criticised over the qualifications and ethical standards of medical staff.
In July, a patient had his wrong leg operated on at the Việt Đức Hospital. It was found that the surgeon in charge was not an employee, but a lecturer from the Hà Nội Medical University sent as a tutor for students practicing at the hospital. The doctor was not qualified to take part in such an operation.
In this instance, it was not just inefficiency, but an ethical breach that had occurred.
The day after the sudden deaths of the two patients, Health Minister Nguyễn Thị Kim Tiến told the press that despite efforts to innovate and improve the attitude of medical staff, a number of health facilities had not fulfilled their responsibilities and allowed medical errors to occur, affecting the reputation of the whole sector.
Tiến also pledged strict punishment under the law for those found responsible.
Whatever the final findings are, it is clear that Trí Đức Hospital put its patients’ lives at risk with poor policies, not just in personnel hiring, also in terms of taking the utmost care in providing treatment.
Tragically, two patients paid for the hospital’s mistakes with their lives.
However, the issue goes beyond one hospital’s carelessness or the incompetence of a few medical staff.
One important lesson that needs to be taken away from this episode is that private clinics are not panacea for all healthcare ills in Việt Nam, although the rhetoric may indicate otherwise.
We have been hearing a lot about how the private sector will help reduce overloading at federal hospitals, bring in advanced technology and lift the standard of healthcare in the country.
It is foolish to assume that commercialisation and “market-oriented” reforms will improve things every time.
We have to imagine what will happen when doctors and nurses and other medical staff start focusing on maximising their earnings, and healthcare is treated as a business with the main focus on maximising profits.
In fact, we do not have to imagine this. We can look around and see what is happening here and in other countries.
In that Mecca of all things market, the United States, things are pretty bad in terms of healthcare access, while they are amasing in “poor” Cuba.
For now, city police have sealed the operating room at the Trí Đức Hospital, and the cases are still under investigation.
Sadly, nothing can save the lives of the two patients. But to save other lives, to provide decent healthcare as a human right to all citizens, we cannot let the “invisible hand” of the market guide or decide things.
We have to take the fate of our nation’s healthcare system into our hands. -- VNS