Huan Vuong, MD | Leadership in Medicine: Southeast Asia

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Information regarding COVID-19 has rapidly evolved. The content in this article provides a historical snapshot of events surrounding the date of posting.

Huan Vuong, MD, is currently a student in the Harvard Medical School Leadership in Medicine: Southeast Asia program (LIM:SEA), planning to graduate in March 2022. He hails from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and despite having only graduated from medical school in 2018 has already worked as COO of the Nestlé Nutrition Institute Vietnam since June 2020.

The institute provides local medical professionals with free nutrition resources and courses. The goal is to enhance knowledge in pediatric nutrition—and the institute already has 14,000 memberships and close relationships with 200 hospitals and health care centers in Vietnam.

Shortly after obtaining the position, Vuong realized he needed to enhance his leadership skills—from effective budgeting to managing resources—and looked into programs that might provide him with the missing tools. Even though he was actually accepted to an MBA program, he says he was inspired by the experience of Juan Lucas Rosas, MD, who participated in LIM:SEA in 2019 and now works as quality assurance director at FV Hospital in Vietnam. Rosas explained that he had taken a lot of leadership coursework, but that LIM:SEA had been the "ultimate" program.

Now a student in the program himself, Vuong says he's learning critical information for his institute position and for an impactful capstone project in his home country. "The more I learn, the more I can see that leadership is the key to open the lock of management," he says.

Learning About Leadership

The Leadership in Medicine: Southeast Asia certificate program pairs health care leaders in Malaysia, Southeast Asia, Australia and the Pacific region with leading authorities in safety, quality, complex organizational management and health leadership. The program is usually a hybrid experience but was moved to a remote format due to the pandemic. Although Vuong says that juggling work and coursework with a significant time difference has been difficult, the experience itself has been instrumental and relevant. 

"What I learned about leadership is that the way we adapt to tough situations is a chance for us to challenge ourselves," he explains.

The most useful aspects of the program, beyond learning more about finances, data and other material aspects of leadership, have been the "soft" skills. "My ability to identify and solve problems has increased along with my critical thinking in project management," he says. "My eyes are now open about how to motivate people and use resources productively."

He particularly appreciated his team projects and the interactivity of the lectures. One particular professor, Ariel D. Stern, started a lecture on innovation with a mostly blank presentation and asked the students to fill in the answers to the questions she asked. The final materials from the lesson were generated by the students, which Vuong said felt like a fully new way to learn. He's gained much more than he expected, he says, and has particularly appreciated the ability to discuss the unique pandemic challenges he's facing in his country with faculty and fellow students.

A Capstone Connecting COVID-19 Patients With Doctors

Vuong’s capstone project relates directly to COVID-19—particularly the situation and medical response in Vietnam—and has only been in development since July 2021. The course immediately gave him the confidence to actually put his ideas in motion, he says—a national health care application on smartphones to connect Vietnamese people at hot spots with health care resources. His newly developed app is simply, appropriately called "Help Me!" (Giúp Tôi!) and is designed to support the millions of people affected by COVID-19 in Vietnam.

Wave four of the pandemic (beginning in April 2021) hit the country particularly badly and led to more than one million cases and more than 23,000 deaths. Because of limited health care resources—only 2,000 ICU doctors practicing in the country with 6,000 ICU beds—the health care system has swiftly become overwhelmed. Vietnam's COVID-19 challenges are primarily concentrated in the Southern provinces, accounting for about 91 percent of cases—and the people there have very limited access to doctors and supplies.

So, Help Me! connects resources from well-supplied areas (primarily the Northern and Central regions) to those people in most dire need in the Southern regions. Users simply log on and ask a medical question, are connected with a medical professional and speak with that person over chat, phone or video for 15 minutes. The interactions are private and flexible, with the doctors (now numbering 2,500) helping when they're available without divulging contact information and patients (now numbering 20,000) asking for assistance when they need it.¹ ²

Already, the Vietnamese prime minister Pham Minh Chinh has participated in a live presentation and was able to use the app, inputting a "question" and getting a real-time reply. "He became my 'patient,' and I tried to answer his 'question' very seriously," Huan remembers, saying that the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Information and Communication, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Planning and Investment all showed support for the app publicly. "As a result, the app has become more well-known than ever—and we were able to talk to the media about our project."

Moving Forward with Impact

Even though Vuong hasn't completed the program yet, the Help Me! project has already gotten funding and support from a variety of sources—including Google and Amazon. Help Me! has already obtained free SMS and call features from Vietnamese telecom operators, corporate branding opportunities and cross-marketing from local companies.

Vuong plans to keep moving forward with both of his major projects—the national app and the Nestlé Nutrition Institute—using the tools he's acquired. LIM:SEA was instrumental in enabling him to outline a realistic budget and develop opportunities for funding, but it was also critical for giving him confidence that he could complete the projects.

Calling the program "unique" in its scope and focus, he explains, "You don't just study one aspect of a particular subject. They give you the entire picture in order to become a better leader."

Learn more about the Leadership in Medicine: Southeast Asia.


Written by Katherine J. Igoe