Thu Hang

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc officially opened 1,000 remote clinics in September 2020. The event was considered a milestone in the digital transformation of Vietnam’s health care sector.

Doctors meeting for online consultation

At the end of January 2021, a patient in Quang Ninh, who had been in a traffic accident, was diagnosed with a heart rupture. Emergency surgery was required. Quang Ninh General Hospital requested an online consultation with doctors and experts from Viet Duc Friendship Hospital in Hanoi, including Associate Professor – Dr. Nguyen Huu Uoc – Director of the Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery Center.

“This was such a rare case,” said Dr. Uoc. “In the past, only central hospitals had the capacity to handle this, but the patient’s condition was so severe that transferring him to a higher level facility was out of the question. Fortunately, we could hold timely consultations via the remote system.”

This is just one of many cases in which lives have been saved thanks to remote consultation and treatment solutions, also known as Telehealth. Thanks to Telehealth, doctors can now direct a surgery taking place thousands of kilometers away as if they were standing in the operating room. After connecting with the Cardiovascular Center of Hanoi’s E Hospital, doctors at Danang Hospital for Women and Children have successfully performed more than 320 open-heart surgeries, despite this being a newly-established hospital. Dr. Tran Minh Dien, Deputy Director of the National Children’s Hospital, explained how a 15-minute online presentation gave doctors on Co To Island, Quang Ninh, about 100 km offshore, a much greater understanding of febrile seizures, a condition they had previously been ill-equipped to treat effectively.

Online consultations require excellent people skills

Without Telehealth solutions, leading professors in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City could not provide much-needed consultations and offer advice to patients on distant islands or in mountainous areas. They could not give daily professional guidance to their colleagues. Before this system was available, doctors had to travel hundreds of kilometers to support lower-level hospitals and patients. This was both time-consuming and inefficient. Now, with Telehealth, professional support can be provided continuously, not only at the district but also at the commune level. It is even possible to connect with doctors who are working from patients’ homes. This helps reduce time and costs for patients and doctors; slashes the workload for provincial and central level hospitals; and improves the professional capacity of health workers at lower levels through training and information updates. Most of all, this helps patients at lower-level hospitals to access the same medical services as those at central-level medical facilities.

The Vietnamese health sector hopes that remote consultations will become the norm in hospitals. For many years, central hospitals have been constantly overloaded due to the inflow of patients from other regions. Incoming patients are either seeking more advanced medical care or timely treatment for critical conditions. Professional support programs for grassroots-level facilities, such as transferring nurses from higher to lower levels to ease the workload, showed limited success since they were hard to maintain continuously.

At the inauguration ceremony for 1,000 remote clinics, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said: “This is the starting milestone of a much bigger story, a move toward digital transformation in the health sector, toward a digital and ‘smart’ nation.”

Beside remote medical consultation and treatments, many hospital and start-ups have introduced an online medical examination and consultation service for patients in the prolonged context of Covid-19 pandemic. With a smart phone or an Internet-connected computer, patients can consult with and be diagnosed by leading doctors and medical experts without even having to visit the hospital. This method is ideal for elderly patients and those who suffer from chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, etc. These patients can undergo regular health checks without worrying about contracting Covid-19 at a hospital or medical facility.

Doctors at the National’s Children Hospital in Hanoi advise on an operation via Telehealth

According to Doctor Anywhere Vietnam, a start-up offering online medical services in Vietnam, before Covid-19, an average of just 60 patients per day used their service. That figure rose by 600% after the virus broke out in Vietnam, reaching over 350 patients per day. Along with Doctor Anywhere Vietnam, a number of online medical examination platforms such as VOV BACSI24, JioHealth, etc. also connect with major hospitals to meet patients’ needs.

Hospitals must choose highly skilled doctors with the “soft skills needed for medical staff in the 4.0 era” to work remotely.

“When it comes to online health care services, doctors must make the most of technology and remote diagnosis skills to accurately assess patients’ health conditions. This is also an opportunity for doctors to improve their communication skills to fully probe for information and provide the most comprehensible advice to patients in a short time,” said Second Degree Specialist Doctor Tran Thu Hang of Thu Cuc General Hospital.

Consultations and screening by phone or online platforms allow patients to easily connect to medical staff. This reduces the temptation to self-diagnose and buy non-prescribed medication, which is important given that people can still buy many drugs, including antibiotics and brand name drugs, without a doctor’s prescription in Vietnam.

Vietnam is looking to connect all 14,000 of its medical facilities across the country to a remote medical service platform between 2020 and 2025. This goal does not seem too far-fetched given that a year ago, remote medical examinations and treatments were still “out of the question”, as the Prime Minister said during the opening ceremony for 1,000 remote clinics.