Oncology medication disrupted by gridlock

May 18, 2021 | 17:18
Cancer patients in Vietnam are still struggling to receive sufficient treatment at hospitals during the ongoing pandemic, triggering questions about possible impacts on suppliers of relevant oncology drugs.
1544 p15 oncology medication disrupted by gridlock
Vietnamese hospitals are often forced to prioritise COVID-19 prevention over oncology work. Photo: Le Toan

Hang Pham, a 40-year-old white-collar worker living in Hanoi, is feeling powerless as she does not know how to protect her father from growing lung cancer, with the latest COVID-19 outbreak possibly delaying his treatment for months.

“I have been living in constant fear since the Lunar New Year holiday. My father has not been able to receive chemotherapy since then. This can lead to metastasis, unless he gets treatment soon. However, all we can do now is to stay at home and wait,” she told VIR.

“Even worse, we are now in a 21-day quarantine at home after visiting the National Cancer Hospital (K Hospital) a few days ago where new infections were found. We are not certain when my father can visit the hospital again,” she said.

Following the outbreak in the northern province of Hai Duong in February, Hanoi, especially K Hospital and its facilities, as well as 20 other cities and provinces have been hit by the pandemic, delaying critical treatments for patients.

“I know many cancer patients who are in the final stages or should be getting chemotherapy and are quarantined instead,” Pham said. “I am waiting for treatment, including oncology drugs.”

Due to pandemic restrictions, the National Cancer Hospital and many others are now applying strict outbreak prevention and fight protocols – which sometimes includes the difficult choice to delay cancer treatment to ensure safety for all.

Vu Phuong Tran, country lead in Vietnam at the Integrated Oncology Centres told VIR, “During the social distancing period in April 2020, due to limited travel from province to province, we saw patients experiencing difficulty in reaching big centres like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City for treatment. The impact on cancer patient care needs to be observed further if the COVID-19 situation remains uncontained.”

Healthcare experts said that the pandemic not only affects patients but also hospitals as they face a fall in the number of patients and revenues, and cancer treatment is not the only health segment impacted. Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi, one of the top-tier hospitals in the country, has admitted to having difficulties during the pandemic, along with the Hanoi Medical University Hospital and the Vietnam-German Hospital. which also reported a strong fall in the number of patients.

Pham Nhu Hiep, director of Hue Central Hospital told VIR, “Back before the pandemic we welcomed all cancer patients, but now we encourage light cases to get treatment at home and only receive serious cases for safety reasons.”

However, while treatment at hospitals is suspended unless necessary, patients still need to buy their medicine. Without hospital prescriptions, however, their purchases are not covered by health insurance, leading to skyrocketing private expenses.

At the hospital, Glivec is commonly used to treat certain blood cancers. Currently, health insurance will cover about 80 per cent of the drug cost, while the remaining 20 per cent is paid by patients. With health insurance, patients spend about VND2.7 million ($117) a month on average on their Glivec medication. Without health insurance, they would need to pay more than VND10 million ($435).

As the coronavirus outbreak continues, more challenges will await cancer patients – necessitating a more appropriate approach to ensure sufficient treatment for them.

By Bich Thuy

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