So I See - Philippine ambassador's view on Taiwan

Last Monday, I motored from Taipei for an hour to the town of Loudong in Yilan County in Taiwan’s northteastern tip.

I was asked to sign as witness to a Memorandum of Understanding between St. Mary’s Hospital and two hospitals in the Philippines, one in Calbayog City in Western Samar, another in Mati City in Davao del Sur.

All hospitals are run by the Order of St. Camillus, an almost 450-year old religious order founded in Italy by St. Camillus de Lellis.  

The hospitals in Mati and Calbayog are named after the Camillian Order’s founder.

The MOU seeks to broaden the assistance given by the Taiwan hospital to its sister-hospitals in our country in terms of visitations of medical specialists from Taiwan as well as consultations for difficult cases by local physicians.  It also aims to broaden assistance to indigent patients in the Philippines as well as disaster relief.

The Camillian priest from Calbayog City was almost teary-eyed when he described how Taiwanese doctors brought hope to the poor people of his ministry in what is the fourth poorest province in the Philippines.

All because to our poor, health care, especially in the countryside, is such a rare commodity.  And in our cities, so very expensive that what little savings a workingman’s family earned in a lifetime often evaporates when a major illness strikes a member.

Sunday evening, I was a guest in the annual Tzu Chi Foundation’s celebration of their founding anniversary which also serves to commemorate Buddha Day.  It was a very solemn and moving ceremony with tens of thousands of devotees.

Prior to the ceremony, each country representative and ambassador was assigned a host who described the mission and vision of Tzu Chi as epitomized by their founder, Dharma Master Cheng Yen.  I expressed the eternal gratitude of our people for the many works of charity and humanitarian assistance that Tzu Chi has extended, and continues to extend to the Philippines, as epitomized by the awesome work they did, and continue to this day, for the victims of Typhoon Yolanda.

Tzu Chi also runs hospitals and free medical clinics in various parts of Taiwan.  I am tying these two incidents up to the manner by which the Taiwanese regard health as an issue of utmost importance.

Mang Ramon, who has been official driver for the resident representative of the Manila Economic and Cultural Office for 22 years here in Taiwan recounted to me how marvelous the health care system in this country is, under the auspices of their National Health Insurance system.

He went on an extensive medical check-up years ago, and paid only 2,000 NT dollars (3,000 pesos), and that was for the room charge.

My predecessor as Chairman had an accident and needed extensive orthopedic surgery.  In the Philippines, that would have cost more than a million in a private hospital.  He paid less than a hundred thousand in peso equivalent, and that was only because he stayed in a fairly large private suite.

Another former MECO official recently had three stents inserted into his arteries to prevent myocardial infarction in a privately-run hospital.

He paid about a tenth of what I paid five years ago to a government specialty hospital for similar coronary intervention.

All these through the Taiwan government’s National Health Insurance system.

Two weeks ago, I took my blood pressure as has been my wont after my brush with a cardiac problem years ago.  The systolic was a bit high; the diastolic was pretty normal.  I decided to test-run my health insurance card in a private hospital.

After paying a registration fee of 380 NT dollars (600 pesos at current exchange), which covered the doctor’s consultancy as well, and getting my BP taken, I was ushered in to the room of the lady physician.

She ordered a blood test and an ECG to test for heart, kidney, liver, cholesterol and sugar levels.  All that was free.

Going back to the hospital this Tuesday morning, I was so relieved that the test registered pretty normal levels.  She prescribed continuation of my medical maintenance pills.  Through her computer, she wrote out the prescription, which went direct to the hospital pharmacy’s computer.

I waited out my turn on the pharmacy, and after some ten minutes, I got a month’s maintenance medication, already wrapped up, with dosage instructions printed on each.  And I did not have to pay.

My health insurance card had a memory chip where my medical history is encrypted, along with the medication I take, so that if I should go to any other hospital or clinic, they would have an immediate read-out of my condition.

Would wonders never cease ?

A new driver from Manila who would be my personal assistant once Mang Ramon retires pretty soon, and who himself got free medication from the same hospital a week ago, remarked as we left the hospital, “Dito sa Taiwan, mahalaga ang buhay ng lahat, maski mahirap.  Sa atin,pag mahirap ka, magtitiis ka na lang hanggang sa mamatay”.

The words were uttered not so much to condemn the state of our health system, though he has real-life stories to tell about his own family and their misadventures with the public health system back home.

They were said in awe and admiration.