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Surgical robots left idle at Hanoi, HCMC hospitals

By Thuy An, Le Phuong   June 22, 2022 | 04:48 pm PT
Legal issues and high operation costs have seen surgical robots 'shelved', forcing patients across Vietnam to seek medical treatment abroad.

In 2017, Bach Mai, a leading public hospital in Hanoi and northern Vietnam, struck a deal with Ho Chi Minh City-based B.M.S Medical Equipment Co., Ltd to put into use two robots, Mako and Rosa, for assisting surgeries. The made-in-U.S. robots were used to help doctors conduct joint and craniocerebral operations.

Three years later, both robots were seized as evidence to investigate a case in which their prices had been raised from around VND7.4 billion ($320,000) each to VND39 billion and VND44 billion.

A court in January sentenced the hospital's former director, Nguyen Quoc Anh, to five years in jail for "abusing positions and powers while performing official duties."

Speaking to VnExpress earlier this month, a top hospital official said the robots could not be used during the time the investigation remains active.

Besides, medical equipment is subject to many regulations including the Investment Law and the Law on Management and Use of Public Property, making it difficult for the hospital to make use of them, he said.

"After the case was settled, the court, prosecutors and police had suggested putting the robots back into use while the hospital sought the Ministry of Health approval," he added.

Back in 2017, a joint operation using Mako at Bach Mai cost more than VND40 million ($1,800) while patients typically pay $17,000-20,000 for the same treatment in the U.K. or U.S.

Doctors use the Rosa robot at Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi in 2017. Photo by the hospital

Doctors deploy surgeries-assisting robot Rosa at Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi in 2017. Photo by the hospital

In 2014, National Children's Hospital became the first hospital in Vietnam to put into application a robot to serve laparoscopic surgery.

Costing VND100 million of the state budget, the robot allows specialists to see more deeply and accurately than during conventional laparoscopic surgery, thanks to three-dimensional imaging. The National Children's Hospital had applied this technology during surgery on over 300 children.

However, the hospital stopped using the robot for several years after its importer stopped receiving parts to service the device.

"Using robots in abdomen laparoscopy helps shorten hospital stays, reduce pain after surgery and ensure higher aesthetics, but the high cost remains a big obstacle, making the service unsuitable for the Vietnamese customer," said a hospital representative.

The hospital has yet to come up with a solution for the robot to avoid wasting state budget resources.

Meanwhile, the robot has been operating since 2014 and is now almost at the end of its life cycle. In order to continue operation, the hospital must change to a new, more progressive, and modern generation, or maintain it at high cost.

In HCMC, only Binh Dan, Cho Ray, and People's Hospital 115 have surgical robots, but for now, only the one at Binh Dan Hospital is in use.

The robot system at Cho Ray Hospital, the largest public facility in southern Vietnam, stopped operation last October due to a lack of parts following bidding issues.

With a budget of VND71 billion from the city's loan, the American system was deployed at the hospital in October 2017.

Doctor Nguyen Tri Thuc, director of Cho Ray, said it is expected that within this month, the system would be put into use after the hospital employs a contractor.

People's Hospital 115 did not use the state or city's budget to equip its Modus V Synaptive robot, which was used to operate on diseases related to the skull and spine.

The robot system at this hospital is priced at VND54 billion and is invested in the form of a contract with a foreign medical machine firm, in which the firm funded the robot while the hospital took charge of training personnel. Profit from operating the device is divided and in line with the contract.

The hospital had sent doctors to the U.S. and Switzerland to study a course on operating the robot, which specializes in brain surgery, but after about a year and a half, the investor had withdrawn the device in August 2020 after the hospital had performed 30 operations using the device.

According to the hospital, not many cases were assigned to be operated with the robot and at the same time, not many patients can afford the service, which costs VND100 million.

 
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