Despite Cambodia’s health-care situation being among the most dire in Asia, hope is in sight as better-trained health professionals and increasingly legitimate higher-education institutions play a critical role in saving lives and making the Kingdom healthier.
As a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Dr Chea Samnang, 39, plays a vital role in spreading messages to young Cambodians about health issues. Since late 2000, his affiliation with the UN agency has enabled him to travel to many parts of the world to meet with other prominent activists, including American actress Angelina Jolie, a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
When Chea Samnang finished high school in 1988, he failed to get into Royal University of Law and Economics.
But he didn’t lose hope. Four years later he enrolled in the University of Health and Science, where he became a general doctor in 1999.
“When I was at university, students had to study hard. Outside school, we had group discussions in Buddhist pagodas. There was no such thing as an air-conditioned café like there is today,” Chea Samnang recalled of his time as a skinny young man fully immersed in school work and getting practical experience at public hospitals.
“In this profession, practical experience during internships is important and is equal to many years of studying in class,” said Chea Samnang, who is also an actor and singer.
With more than a decade being a messenger of peace and health, he thinks his volunteer job has widened his view by providing the opportunity to travel domestically and internationally to meet and talk with young Cambodians and policymakers.
Meanwhile, Koin Vuttey is just entering the fray of professional medicine.
Originally from Banteay Meanchey province in the country’s northwest, Koin Vuttey enrolled in medical school in 2004 following her mother’s advice.
Now in her sixth year, she hopes to major in gynaecology, should she pass her specialisation test later this year, which will also enable her to graduate in two years, rather than extending her studies to four years if she fails.
When Koin Vuttey was much younger, she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. She knew only one thing: She liked foreign languages. “I love the way people speak. But I never thought of being a medical doctor,” said Koin Vuttey, a student at the University of Health and Science (formerly known in French as Faculte Mixte de Medecine, de Pharmacie et d’Odonto-Stomatologie), the nation’s oldest public school providing training for doctors and assistant physicians in medicine, pharmacy and dentistry. The university, which restarted in 1980, was established in 1946 when Cambodia was under French rule.
With an annual fee of US$850, excluding text books and other education-related expenses, the cost totals $6,500 for a period of eight years to be a general doctor. However, that has not stopped medical students like Koin Vuttey from mastering their desired profession. Currently in her third year, Koin Vuttey, who also studies French language at the Institute of Foreign Language, is able to keep up with all her school work and an internships at Maternal and Child Health Center, near Wat Phnom. “I’ve got my medical class every afternoon; after that, I learn French. In the morning, I have to my internship. It’s not paid, but it’s a practical experience I need.” With such a busy schedule, the future medical doctor sometimes thinks about taking a year off from her evening class.
With all the hard work and hours spent in class, the investment in medical school is long term. Koin Vuttey says she hopes that she will help curb infant mortality – a critical issue facing Cambodia today – which stands at 69 per 1,000 live births, compared with 22 per 1,000 live births in other East and Asia Pacific countries.
It is goals like these that keep her going, along with the belief that eventually she will not only be making a difference for herself, but for the entire country.