Healthcare lessons in Vietnam and China

Akha women don their traditional garb and put up a dance for their New Year Parade

The inaugural healthcare Study Trips for Engagement and EnRichment (STEER) programme, organised by the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine (NUS Medicine) took place from 28 December 2018 to 6 January 2019 and saw 23 students from NUS Medicine, the Alice Lee Centre for Nursing Studies (NUS Nursing) and NUS Social Work visit healthcare communities in Vietnam and China. Over the two weeks, the students found out about the healthcare challenges faced by the communities, and how the residents and healthcare professionals innovate to overcome them.

The trip was led by Director for Outreach & Community Engagement and Resident Fellow at the College of Alice and Peter Tan Dr Tan Lai Yong, who used to live and work in Xishuangbanna in Yunnan, China. Dr Tok Pei Loo, from the National University Health Systems Renal Medicine Department also accompanied the students on the trip.

“It was an experience that I would not have otherwise imagined myself able to go through! To witness humanity in a different light, to occasionally get a peek into the lesser known parts of the world; it was insightful, challenging and beautiful to say the least,” recounted NUS Nursing Year 2 student Ho Pei Juan.

The students first travelled to Hanoi, where they took part in walking tours and were primed to look out for occupational health hazards such as arc eye from welding and noise related work settings. They also had the opportunity to visit the Hỏa Lò Prison, as well as speak with local university students to understand the accessibility of healthcare services in Hanoi. A high point of their time in Hanoi was a dialogue with Dr Yang Seung Bong, a Korean surgeon working in Hanoi, who shared his experiences doing humanitarian work in Nepal, as well as his involvement in organising healthcare insurance conferences.


The students smile for a photo on the Long Bien Bridge, which overlooks the Hanoi Old Quarter

From Hanoi, the team travelled by train and bus to Xishuangbanna where they were hosted by Akha villagers — an indigenous hill tribe — and lived with them in their homes. The students enjoyed extensive interaction with the friendly Akha villagers and were hosted for various meals, which gave them some insight into the dietary, lifestyle and sanitation habits of the villagers. They also attended the Akha New Year Parade, where they tasted traditional staples and snacks and watched Akha villagers perform their traditional dances and songs.

While in Xishuangbanna, the students met Dr Diarra Boubacar, from Mali, Africa who has lived in China for 30 years and is trained in both western medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). He shared with the students his journey to becoming a TCM practitioner, the challenges he faced, as well as his thoughts on the future of TCM in China. Dr Boubacar also accompanied the students on their forest walks, teaching them about the the herbs used in TCM. The students learnt that the loss of forestry poses a major challenge to the future of TCM because with less wild herbs available, practitioners have to turn to herbs grown with fertilisers, which are less effective.

These are ordinary villagers, humanitarian ‘heroes’ and business people who put creative thought into providing good healthcare services. Their commitment to professional excellence, resilience and empathy for their community is inspiring.

The participants also visited the only Dai medicine hospital in China; the Dai is another minority group in Xishuangbanna. There they spoke with 15 village doctors who were trained by Dr Tan during his time in China and learnt that holistic treatment of patients — physical, emotional and mental — is intrinsic to Dai medicine’s core principles, with doctors open to both TCM and Western Medicine treatment options.

A highlight of the trip was a visit to a leprosy village. It was a lesson on the cruelty of stigma for the students — although the villagers had long been cured of the bacterial infection that causes leprosy, they still resided in a remote region due to fear of discrimination. Fortunately, persons with leprosy, as well as other stigmatised diseases like HIV, are now being treated in the community.


A visit to a leprosy village was a lesson on the cruelty of stigma

Throughout the trip, the students were enlightened about the myriad of healthcare challenges on both personal and institutional levels. Looking back on his experience, NUS Medicine Year 1 student Charles Kwong said he realised that he should be more grateful for the blessings and opportunities that he has had. “In acknowledging my position of privilege, I know I have the responsibility to improve the lives of others in whatever capacity I have,” he said.

They also appreciated the privilege of seeing the beautiful countries and interacting with its people. “These are ordinary villagers, humanitarian ‘heroes’ and business people who put creative thought into providing good healthcare services. Their commitment to professional excellence, resilience and empathy for their community is inspiring,” said NUS Medicine Year 1 student Clare Cheong.

The NUS STEER programme by the Global Relations Office aims to help undergraduates break existing mindsets about emerging regions through participation in an immersive educational and cultural experience. Inaugurated in 2010, the programme has since expanded to include countries in Asia, Central and Latin America, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Southern Africa. In December 2018 alone, in addition to the study trip to Mexico and Cuba, NUS students had the opportunity to take part in exciting and insightful trips to Myanmar, India and the Middle East.

By NUS Medicine Year 1 students Clare Cheong Wei Zhen, Lim Rui En Rae-Ann and Yan Yiqing