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Quick: define “medical social work”

Updated: Jul 19, 2019

Drawing a blank? Or not? For many of us, our response might be, “Umm—social work in the medical field?” And actually, that’s not a bad answer. REI has sought to partner with our Vietnamese colleagues in this area over the past several years, through the efforts of Song Lee from Singapore and Dana Senior from the USA, among others. This year Florence Fong, also from Singapore, has begun investing in medical social work at Phu San Hanoi Hospital, (also known as Hanoi Obstetrics and Gynecology Hospital), a long-time partner of REI. So what does her work look like?

Florence (left) and Phuong

As a Medical Social Worker at Phu San, Florence has the benefit of working alongside Dr. Vu Thi Thu Hien, an anesthesiologist, one-time Visitor Exchange (J-1) Fellow with REI, and currently the Director of the Social Work Department at Phu San. Social work is a relatively new discipline in Vietnam, but Dr. Hien is ahead of many of her peers in seeing the transformational potential of medical social work, partly as a result of her time in the USA and in Europe. She eagerly supported Florence in her offer to volunteer at Phu San.

“What we are seeking to do,” Florence said recently, “is develop the health care system in a more holistic manner—helping people physically, yes, but also psychologically, socially, and spiritually. Recognizing people’s needs in their entirety drives our intervention.”

Florence worked at Singapore General Hospital (recently rated by Newsweek as one of the top three hospitals in the world) before moving to Vietnam. One of her initial challenges was to find a hospital in Hanoi that was in a position to utilize her experience and training. Phu San seemed like a good fit.

After an initial discussion with Dr. Hien and her departmental staff, Florence was invited to give a couple of presentations for World Social Work Day, which took place on March 18 this year and was observed in Vietnam on March 24. Florence presented on “The Role of the Medical Social Worker in an OBGYN Hospital,” and on “Post-partum Depression and Social Work.” She was offered a position the same day. After the necessary formalities were completed, Florence began her first day of work at Phu San on May 20.

“One of the things I try to do with the staff is increase their awareness of some of the basic tenets of social work. Among doing other things, I give a weekly presentation and focus on such basic concepts as self-awareness, empathy, values of social work, which include justice and self-determination, and helping the marginalized. In that last area, we also try to provide financial help to those who would have difficulty paying for their hospital stay otherwise.”

Helping the economically marginalized goes beyond simply covering the hospital bills for Phu San. A few weeks ago, Florence joined her colleagues on a business trip to nearby provinces to the north of Hanoi where the hospital has been building a number of cinder block homes for people in great need. The recipients vary, from an elderly woman living alone, to a mentally disabled woman living nearby, to farming families with little to no financial margin.

As Florence described one situation, “A case that spoke to me here (in Bac Giang province) was a family which consisted of a couple and their two children, aged around 15 and 10. Their old “house” was not really a house. It looked more like a tent built on top of the dirt ground that was held up by wooden sticks and big plastic sheets for cover. I noticed that some of the plastic sheets already had holes in them and when the wind blew, they did not provide much protection at all. I wondered how the family coped during the times of strong winds and heavy rains. Their new house donated by the hospital was only halfway done.

Old and New House

“However, despite the simple “house” that they have now, the family shared that they were very grateful for the construction of the new concrete house and that they were looking forward to its completion eventually. Though we could tell that the family had been through a lot of physical and economic hardship, the smile on their faces as they spoke about the upcoming house expressed the deep gratitude towards the donation provided for them. I was personally touched by the family’s resilience and perseverance to continue pressing forward to provide a way for the family to continue to study and for their daily living through the husband’s work as a farmer.”

Florence has also been helping to facilitate an English club for her department which meets weekly, as well as helping a colleague prepare a submission for an upcoming conference on quality and safety in healthcare. Helping hospital staff in their own professional development will, we believe, pay dividends in advancing health care in Vietnam. And she has been working with the department on a research project that seeks to explore the lived experiences of mothers in the hospital who are thinking of having a third child in Vietnam. “I am excited to have this opportunity to share my knowledge and experience in leading research projects,” Florence says.

Phu San, through the efforts of Dr. Hien and her department and aided by Florence, is seeking to dramatically improve the health care of young mothers and infants through caring for the whole person, and not simply focusing on their medical conditions. Happier, healthier mothers, happier, healthier babies. Stronger families. Stronger communities. This is right in line with REI’s aim of developing a nation through helping to (among other things!) advance health care. We are proud to partner with Florence, Hien, and Phu San, as we together strive to build people to build nations!

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