When it officially opened in December 1996, the Sihanouk Hospital Center of Hope in Phnom Penh was an anomaly in the country.
The private center, funded entirely by donors, offered free medical treatment for those who could not afford to pay hospital fees, and in the process gave some of the country’s neediest access to reliable, 24-hour medical care.
In the 10 years since, patients have flocked from some of the country’s farthest provinces to the hospital, which has grown from a two-ward center with 25 doctors to a full hospital complex with 380 members of staff, 370 of them Cambodians.
At the hospital’s 10th anniversary celebration on Wednesday morning—attended by guest of honor King Norodom Sihamoni and board members and donors from as far as Japan and the US—doctors and nurses noted excitedly how the hospital, its staff and their patients have flourished over the past decade.
“The hospital grew up,” said medical nurse Yous Chan Thom, who started with SHCH seven years ago as a scrub nurse for surgeries.
“We have learned more about how to treat patients…. [Now] the staff can stand on its own,” she said.
During 12-hour shifts at the hospital, Yous Chan Thom said she is constantly reminded of how badly the country’s poor are in need of medical care.
“What I like best about the hospital is that they don’t take money [from patients]…. I worry about the patients who are so poor,” she said.
The hundreds of thousands of patients who have visited the hospital in the past decade have not only received treatment that they ordinarily could not afford, but have also learned from their medical attention.
Patients have a better understanding of how to take proper medication, for example, and the importance of seeking treatment early instead of waiting for an illness to become serious.
“There is better understanding than there was 10 years ago,” Yous Chan Thom said.
The mood at Wednesday morning’s ceremony was celebratory, with frequent applause from an audience of hundreds during speeches from the hospital’s board members and directors, Health Minister Nuth Sokhum, and King Sihamoni, who also announced a personal donation of $10,000 to the hospital.
There was even an impromptu musical performance, when Toshu Fukami, vice-chairman of the hospital board and president of the Japanese organization World Mate, which has been a major contributor to the hospital since its founding, serenaded King Sihamoni with the Italian opera classic “O Solo Mio.”
Also in attendance were Bernard Krisher, chairman of the board of the Sihanouk Hospital Corporation and chairman of Japan Relief for Cambodia and hospital board member Robert Gempel, who is president of HOPE worldwide, a US-based charity that has provided doctors and nurses to work at the hospital. Bernard Krisher is also publisher of The Cambodia Daily
The hospital’s gains in the past 10 years are indeed something to celebrate, said Dr Chea Vannarith, head of the hospital’s radiology department.
The hospital has made “amazing” progress since he joined it in 1998, when the radiology department was equipped with a single machine and a sprinkling of personnel.
Now, the department has brand new x-ray and ultra-sound machines, purchased a month ago thanks to a grant from USAID, Chea Vannarith said.
“All the machines before were secondhand…. We can look at many more things [with the new machines],” he added.
Chea Vannarith, who studied medicine in France, said that the hospital’s added focus on training doctors has shown incredible payoff in the form of expertise and quality of care.
The hospital’s foray into “telemedicine,” which entails e-mailing scans, x-rays and images from microscope slides to doctors at universities abroad for diagnosis, has particularly helped local doctors to develop their own expertise, and to avoid misdiagnoses.
“We have Internet in the office…and can gain experience from others abroad,” Chea Vannarith said.
Now that the hospital has established itself in Phnom Penh, Chea Vannarith added, it is focusing on strengthening healthcare in the provinces.
The hospital has a long history of cooperation with the Health Ministry, Nuth Sokhum said in his speech.
The high level of free care provided at SHCH is now “famous among the people of Cambodia,” Nuth Sokhum added.
Dr Gary Jacques, who has been the hospital’s director for the past five years, said that SHCH has aimed to share information and quality training with local medical providers and organizations as much as possible.
“We’ve tried to partner and engage with the medical community,” he said.
“There is still a great need for clinical training in Cambodia,” Jacques added.
But in the hospital’s 10 years of service, “physical infrastructure has improved a lot, and programs have become more diverse, with more provincial outreach…. Training has grown exponentially,” he said.
“Our dream now is to continue to serve…until we see the day when access to basic quality health care is available to everyone in Cambodia,” Jacques wrote in the hospital’s annual report.