Cambodian healthcare is in the midst of a transition from providing basic services to a modern system capable of treating specialised cases. Visitors and foreign residents will find facilities that can take care of their daily needs, but may still have to travel outside the country (in some cases) for specialised care.
Cambodia’s public medical system is oriented around providing healthcare for the poorest and most vulnerable citizens, with excellent and free children’s hospitals in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. The majority of Cambodians who can afford to, turn to the private sector for medical treatment, and foreigners are advised to do the same as they will have access to skilled doctors and the latest technology.
It’s important for travellers and expatriates to manage their expectations of what services are available here, and when it’s time to seek advanced medical treatment in regional centres such as Bangkok, Singapore, or back at home. Purchasing medical insurance that allows for treatment overseas, or a medical evacuation, is a must for anyone spending more than a few weeks in the Kingdom.
Most clinics and hospitals employ general practitioners and nurses who can diagnose common ailments, treat early stages of more complex diseases, offer supportive maintenance of chronic conditions, and also provide services like immunisation. Patients typically come to these clinics seeking treatment for heat exhaustion, dehydration, and food-related issues like traveller’s diarrhea, says Marilyn Bright, the clinic manager of Raffles Medical Clinic (previously known as International SOS Clinic) in Phnom Penh.
Complicated diseases can be prevented by paying attention to the challenges of living in a tropical climate and the particular diseases that can flourish here. “Disregard for the dangers of mosquito bites exposes travellers to dengue fever and chikungunya. These are not fatal diseases but they do require a correct diagnosis, symptomatic treatment and monitoring,” she says.
Clinics can also help visitors to maintain their immunity status with their vaccinations, which is an important preventative step, Bright adds. “Bites and scratches from dogs, monkeys and feral cats are not uncommon and prophylactic vaccination for rabies is highly recommended for any resident or traveller here.”
Advanced medical infrastructure and treatment
For more advanced medical concerns, CT scanners, MRIs, angiography, and laboratory testing are also now available.
Residents and visitors should also be aware of where medical treatment still needs improvement. Most hospitals lack modern trauma units or services such as ambulances with trained medics. Local hospital staff may be able to stabilise patients, but a serious accident will require an evacuation to Bangkok by helicopter or car. The safety of blood transfusions also varies from hospital to hospital, and should be avoided outside of Phnom Penh.
Despite this challenge, Cambodian doctors – particularly specialists – are gradually catching up with their counterparts elsewhere in Asia, says Park, who also heads the Cambodia Neurosurgery Support Project to train local neurosurgeons.
“The number of specialties with in-country training has increased dramatically recently. Neurosurgery residency started four years ago and plastic surgery started just this year,” says Dr Kee Park, a consultant neurosurgeon at Preah Kossamak Hospital in Phnom Penh.
Neurosurgery has improved thanks to the establishment of a professional board, the Society of Neurosurgeons, which has created and monitors standards in research, training, and treatment.
The society has enabled local neurosurgeons to identify where treatment disparities exist in the provinces, and which kind of equipment is needed to improve facilities.
Park says that creating similar professional boards for different specialities would help to improve Cambodian medicine in the future.
“Quality and safety needs more attention. This can be done by each professional society by implementing minimum training requirements, certification of competency, and sanctions when necessary,” he recommends.