by Tran Quynh Hoa
HA NOI — Viet Nam is going to launch its first national e-health plans this year, the Ministry of Health has said.
Children's Hospital 1 in HCM City is overloaded with patients from other provinces. The Government's telemedicine project is expected to reduce overcrowding at central hospitals as 80 per cent of the country's demand for healthcare are from the countryside. — VNA/VNS Photo Huu Oai
Director of the Department of Medical Services Administration Luong Ngoc Khue told Viet Nam News that a national telemedicine service and a synchronous electronic medical records system would be set up in four years' time under the plans.
The telemedicine service was awaiting approval from the Minister of Health and the Prime Minister and the blueprints for the records system would be completed soon, he said.
The telemedicine project would connect all central hospitals and many provincial hospitals across the country using video conferencing technology.
A national website would also be set up so that everyone could access health information, wherever they are, said Khue.
The plan would need more than VND90 billion (US$4.5 million) for its first phase (2011-13), of which 60 per cent would come from the State budget and the other 40 per cent from the hospitals themselves. In the second phase (2014-15), a partly subsidised tele-medical service would be kicked off, he said.
Meanwhile, the second project would bring into operation electronic health records and medical services administration by 2014.
Khue said health records would be standardised and shared online, which would make it easier for people to receive health checks and treatment in different hospitals and, at the same time, improve the quality of record-based diagnosis and treatment.
The project would involve a portal on which electronic health records are stored with systems providing public services online, including granting medical licences to qualified organisations and individuals.
"It would make it more convenient for both health service providers and users," he said.
The project is expected to cost the Government VND26 billion ($1.3 million).
Both projects have shown great determination by Health Ministry leaders.
"A lot of challenges remain, but it's time the country developed e-health," said Khue.
E-health is already popular in many countries around the world.
As soon as US President Barack Obama took office, he set into motion a five-year plan to develop electronic health records for all Americans. He also earmarked $19 billion for IT health spending, $17 billion of which was designated for incentive payments for the use of electronic health records starting this year.
As for Viet Nam, with 70 per cent of the population living in rural areas and 32 per cent with access to internet services, many experts see great potential for e-health and long-distance medicine.
Khue said e-health had already started in Viet Nam but remained isolated with a lack of connections between healthcare centres.
The National Children's Hospital and Viet Duc Hospital in Ha Noi are the leaders in this area, according to the Health Ministry.
The National Children's Hospital, for instance, rolled out an electronic health records and medical services administration system in 2003 and has held telemedicine conferences with international partners as well as local hospitals since 2005.
A lot of health research resources have also been made available on the hospital's website (www.nhp.org.vn), which is another form of e-health, according to a representative of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Viet Nam, Jean Marc Olive.
Nguyen Hai Binh, a mother of two sons, is a regular user of this website.
"It's really handy. I learn a lot about common child diseases and how to prevent them," she said.
The WHO Access to Health Research initiative in collaboration with major medical publishers like Elsevier is also providing national health institutions in Viet Nam free access to thousands of information sources.
Olive said all regional publications by the organisation were available free online and it was making every effort to make them available in Viet Nam in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and centres like the Central Health Information and Technology Institute.
The use of mobile technologies in healthcare was also an emerging trend of interest, the WHO representative said.
Ericsson Viet Nam, for instance, already showed their interest in providing mobile health services to people living in rural areas via end-to-end users of the 3G broadband networks in Viet Nam, coupled with Ericsson's Mobile Health Solution Kit, which was globally launched in June 2010.
But Olive said there was "a great potential" in this field but "even in developed countries, the use of mobile phones in health is still at an early stage".
Apparently, high-tech is not always easy to use.
National Children's Hospital's Information Technology Department head Nguyen The Vinh said it was difficult to run video conferences with local hospitals as these healthcare centres lacked both equipment and trained staff.
"Our hospital usually has to pay for the cable, equipment rental and technicians for the other end, which costs up to VND20 million ($1,000) a time. It's expensive, that's why we can't do it very often," he said.
But the hospital plans to practise telemedicine on a regular basis when the Health Ministry's plan starts off.
Vinh said he believed the cost of telemedicine would drop considerably once the national system was launched and local hospitals had equipment and trained staff in place.
Costs were also expected to be covered by insurance companies and patients themselves, he said.
While electronic health records had improved the quality of the management and professional expertise of the hospital, telemedicine had also proved its effectiveness, said Vinh.
"Just by asking a couple of questions and the results of specific tests in a teleconferencing consultation, doctors at my hospital were able to help their colleagues at Hoa Binh Hospital treat patient without having to transfer him to Ha Noi, which would have been almost impossible considering his critical condition," he said.
Experts believe the Health Ministry's telemedicine project will be of great use.
"This will be another Plan 1816 [bringing doctors from central hospitals to work at grassroots ones] but using information and telecommunications technologies," said Khue.
Four-fifths of healthcare needs in Viet Nam are from rural areas while provincial and communal health centres lack skilled human resources, according to the Health Ministry.
"With the vibrant development of broadband internet, telemedicine will help reduce healthcare costs for rural people, particularly those in remote areas," said Khue.
This would also ease the overloaded central hospitals. — VNS