Medical worker Hoang Thi Nguyet shines the light on a major health scandal
Few things could have prepared Hoang Thi Nguyet for being caught at the centre of one of the biggest scandals to rock Vietnam’s health sector last year.
In August, the 47-year-old blew the whistle on a major medical cover-up at the Hoai Duc General Hospital in Hanoi where she worked as a member of the medical staff. She reported hospital technicians who had been replicating up to 1,149 blood tests over a period of 10-months, with copies of the results were distributed to some 2,000 patients.
The scandal sparked a nationwide outcry, not least among the patients who were furious over being given inaccurate health information and being charged for the blood tests that were never conducted.
While she was lauded for exposing the truth, Nguyet says it was not an easy thing to do, addintg that she and her colleagues faced “intense pressure” to remain silent.
“I was scared, but determined to expose the wrong-doers. I knew this was the right thing to do, and was not afraid of losing my job,” she says during an interview at the 19-8 Hospital in Cau Giay district where she is currently undergoing training for medical testing.
According to Nguyet, the shady dealings began in July 2012 when the medical test unit at the Hoai Duc Hospital was divided into two sections. Nguyet and some of her senior colleagues suddenly were prohibited from conducting tests on patients.
This created suspicion as the 10-member unit usually performed up to 2,000 blood tests per day.
“Suddenly we were not allowed to do our jobs. All our normal duties were being done by temporary staff or recent graduates, and somehow, they were able to return the test results to the patients an hour later. We knew something fishy was going on because this was impossible,” she says.
Determined to find out the truth, Nguyet and her colleague began to record the technicians at work.
To their horror, they discovered that the technicians would discard the blood samples they took and then give the patient a copy of someone else’s test result.
Nguyet admitted that at first she did not want to turn in her colleagues to the authorities.
“We knew that the general director of the hospital was involved in this, and it would be difficult to make him take responsibility for this. We tried confronting the technicians and telling them to do the right thing, but they kept on providing the patients with false results. I knew I had to do something.”
Lobbying those who were against this practice, Nguyet and her colleagues wrote an 18-page letter to Vietnam health authorities and the police, accusing the hospital’s director-general Nguyen Tri Liem and others involved of malpractice.
“We didn’t hear anything in response for a long time. But eventually, the media highlighted the case,” she says.
Khuat Thi Dinh, who also worked in that hospital and signed the letter exposing its misdeeds, said that it took a lot of courage for an “ordinary person” like Nguyet to do what she did, describing her as “extremely determined”.
“When the whole ordeal became too stressful, many of us asked ourselves whether it was worth it,” says Dinh, adding that one senior colleague even withdrew her signature due to pressure from her family who feared she would be in danger if she exposed the hospital.
The now-former hospital director-general himself had threatened the group that there would be repercussions if they chose to expose him.
Following the exposing and investigations, 10 people were charged in the case including the director-general in August.
Nguyet and two others who had helped her expose the malpractice were rewarded 320,000 dong (Bt500) each plus a certificate of merit from the Hanoi health department.
Patients who had received falsified results were also offered free check-ups, while the case prompted high-level talks on the need to protect whistle blowers in such cases.
Nguyet says that she did not even think about receiving a reward, but felt that she needed to do the right thing for the medical sector. The case has been recognised by the National Assembly as well as the prime minister of Vietnam.
She is now nicknamed “Nguyet Hoai Duc” (after the hospital).
“People in the same industry told me that after the case came out, their respective hospitals tightened their regulations on medical testing.
“Hearing this, I feel that my hard work has paid off.”