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Aging Nations Look to Vietnam to Fill Nursing Gap

  • Marianne Brown

Lucien Blanchard, general manager of the Vietnam-France Hospital, signs a form for a nurse outside the facility in capital city Hanoi, March 2003.

Lucien Blanchard, general manager of the Vietnam-France Hospital, signs a form for a nurse outside the facility in capital city Hanoi, March 2003.

Two countries with the world’s oldest populations, Japan and Germany, are training geriatric nurses in Vietnam to help fill critical health care gaps at home.

This month, 100 young Vietnamese are heading to Germany as part of a new project to train geriatric nurses for work in the European country. The trainees have just finished a six-month language and culture course in Hanoi, and they will spend the next two years in a vocational training program. If they pass the final exam, they can work in Germany as fully qualified geriatric nurses.

One of them, 24-year-old Huong Thi Thi, said she is excited about the move. “In Germany there is modern medicine and nursing. In Vietnam, particularly caring for the elderly, is very new. I want to come to Germany to gain more knowledge and experience in caring for the elderly.”

Germany is Europe’s biggest economy, but it is facing a demographic crisis as low birth rates combine with longer life spans. More than one fifth of the population is older than 65, and that percentage is expected to increase in the coming years.

Rising need

As a result, the number of elderly people needing care is expected to increase by more than a million in 2030, according to the German international development agency, GIZ.

Dominik Ziller, GIZ’s director of general migration, said, “We know we have a lack of qualified workforce in the health sector today, and we also know that in our aging German society the number of people who will need these caregivers and nurses and geriatric nurses will increase dramatically.”

By contrast, 60 per cent of Vietnam’s population was born after the war in 1975 and the country falls short of employing its entire potential workforce. Most children are expected to look after their parents, or parents-in-law at home when they get old.

The pilot project is not a quick-fix solution, and the project is still in the early stages so its success cannot be gauged yet, said Ziller. One potential problem, however, could be the language barrier.

“It’s more difficult for someone speaking Vietnamese to learn German than somebody speaking another European language with similar grammar. We know our young people who have undergone language training here will need additional language training,” he said.

Japan's aging population

It’s a problem that Japan, the fastest aging country in the world, also is facing when training foreign nurses. Later this year for the first time 150 Vietnamese candidates will go to the East Asian country for two year’s training at Japanese hospitals, after which they will sit for the national nursing exam.

Japan already trains nurses from the Philippines and Indonesia, but the system has come under criticism for being too strict. All applicants must take the same exam in Japanese, but it is very difficult for foreign candidates because of the language barrier, said Yoko Tsuruya, first secretary at the Japanese embassy in Hanoi.

She said foreign nationals are given some help, though, to complete the test. For example, they are given more time, and Japanese words are transliterated into international pronunciation.

To improve the training system, instead of continuing their language courses when they arrive in Japan, as nursing candidates from other countries currently do, the Vietnamese trainees will go straight to their hospital placement and combine language studies with practical experience.

Despite Japan’s rapidly aging population, admitting foreign workers for some industries remains controversial. Critics say foreign labor could lead to lower standards of work or increase unemployment.

However, there is little opposition to the intake of nurses.

Tsuruya said not many people have opportunities to pass the nursing exam, so the opposition against this kind of program is less than the opposition to labor.

Despite Vietnam’s youthful population, rapid urbanization has led to demographic changes of its own. Changing lifestyles means fewer people choose to look after their elderly parents at home. Trainee nurse Huong said that in the future, she thinks Vietnam will need more hospitals for the elderly, but said learning the skills abroad can help Vietnamese people develop this sector for themselves.

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