Deadly medical errors in Vietnam

VIETNAM - Incidents of medical malpractice in Vietnam are not rare.

For Halloween, one man in Ho Chi Minh City wore a doctor's white coat with a name tag on the left chest pocket.

It did not read "Dr Frankenstein", but "Dr Cat Tuong".

Dam Vinh Hung, a well known Vietnamese pop star, dressed up in the ghoulish costume to mimic a medic who is being gossiped about all over town.

The allegation is that he accidentally killed a 39-year-old woman in a botched breast-enlargement surgery. Then, he is said to have admitted dumping her body in the Red (Hong) River.

The woman concerned, Le Thi Thanh Huyen, suffered a tragic death - and her body is yet to be found. The story, and the alleged actions of the doctor, Nguyen Manh Tuong, continue to make headlines in the mass media.

While the actions of the pop star are in such obvious bad taste, they do seem to reflect a gory tale of medical malpractice.

Reports say that Dr Tuong carried out the operation in an unlicensed beauty clinic or salon that he worked in. It is even said that the doctor's main job was at the prestigious, state-owned Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi.

Leading figures in the government are said to be well aware of the incident, so people are eagerly waiting to see what charges the doctor will eventually face.

Other authorities are said to be trying to avoid getting involved in the matter.

Secretary of the Hanoi Party Committee, Pham Quang Nghi, said the Health Ministry or city authorities could not be blamed for the incident. He said the case was so rare and unusual it could not be connected to the overall responsibilities of authorities.

When Nghi referred to the case as rare, he was probably referring to Dr Tuong's alleged actions in throwing her body into the river after the poor woman died. As for medical malpractice, in Vietnam, sadly, it is not a rare event. Many people know of someone who has died this way.

Just three months ago, three infants died after being vaccinated in central Quang Tri province.

Authorities recently came to the conclusion that they were given the wrong serum.

Another infant died the following month in southern Binh Phuoc province after being given a faulty tuberculosis vaccine.

In central Khanh Hoa province, a 21-month-old boy had his bladder cut out mistakenly by doctors, who were supposed to be performing surgery to remove a hernia.

The boy has to use two catheters to urinate until he's five years old - when his bladder can be rebuilt.

I can recall even more deaths and unfortunate consequences caused by medical malpractice in this country, but space won't allow. When they happened, authorities also did not hasten to condemn the doctors or nurses involved, probably because the incidents were less dramatic.

However, in Dr Tuong's case, his alleged actions are considered morally unacceptable by everyone. Only after the death of Huyen did the Health Ministry suddenly announce "urgent inspections" on private health centres, beauty salons and the need to improve the quality of doctors.

Minister Nguyen Thi Kim Tien said several inspection missions were held after the incident to examine private health centres. She also said hotlines would be set up to receive information about medical malpractices.

But how many people have to die before an effective management mechanism is put into place? Isn't it a bit too late? Dr Tuong's beauty salon did not have a licence, even though it had been operating for six months. In addition to that, the law insists that beauty salons are prohibited from operating breast-enlargement surgery.

A friend of mine, who had gone through some plastic surgery, said that while many women wished to be more beautiful, they needed to spend more time selecting a trained and licensed surgeon to do the job.

But how can they know which experts have sufficient training unless the authorities also become more accountable in following their own rules?

I took a look at the website of Cat Tuong Beauty Salon at

The doctor's profile sounds reassuring, appealing to women who want to give their bodies an upgrade.

The site states that he had more than 10 years' experience in plastic surgery, and had been associated with big hospitals in the country. However, there was no mention of a lack of licence.

The doctor was quoted as saying: "I advise customers who not only have concerns about their appearance but also about their health. I'm happy to see them happy, and in doing this, I find more meaning to my life." What could be more positive?

As grand as the website advertisement sounds, the fact is that Dr Tuong not only failed to do the promised task, he allegedly killed the patient.

Doctors have to follow certain rules. Number one is safety for patients. The best way to prevent medical malpractice is to hold hospitals and doctors responsible when they violate safety rules. Yet the situation in Vietnam is often just the opposite.

Those responsible for serious or fatal mistakes can be quickly forgotten. Some doctors are blamed for their mistakes, others are sometimes fired.

That's all. It seems to the public that no functioning mechanism holds hospitals and doctors accountable when they commit medical malpractice.

Dr Tuong might not be as lucky as some of his colleagues because every one in the country now has their eyes on his case.

If the body is found and an autopsy is done, his fate will become even clearer.

The question is: Will the case make any difference to management in the health sector? Or once the body is found, and all salacious curiosity quenched, will the crowd then move its attention to other issues?

A few days after the incident at Cat Tuong Beauty Salon, many beauty salons in Hanoi area were closed down for "licence renewal" as they stated on notice boards quickly hung on their windows. What are they afraid of?

The law is clear: beauty salons are only allowed to carry out certain practices, this excludes breast enlargement surgery and fat removal.

What we need now is an effective enforcement mechanism to prevent medical malpractice and stronger measures to ensure patient safety.

The sad case of the woman lying at the bottom of a river must never be forgotten.