Bangkok Faces: Prof. Emeritus Chanika Tuchinda of Samitivej

15 December 2014, BKK Kids

All children should have the opportunity to develop to their full capacity.
This fundamental belief has driven Professor Emeritus Chanika Tuchinda M.D. throughout her medical career. Dr. Chanika’s story has become the story of Samitivej International Children’s Hospital. The hospital, which opened in 2014, was built upon Dr. Chanika’s inspiration, experiences and passion.

Dr. Chanika, a pediatric endocrinologist, worked at Boston Children’s Hospital from 1968-­‐70. When she returned to Thailand, she brought with her a dream to have the same level of care available to children in her own country. But at the time, modern conveniences and infrastructure that was the norm in the United States were not available in Thailand. Children were malnourished, and universal health care had not yet been established. Many children being raised in rural communities lacked the basics of child health care.

Soon after her return to Thailand, while working at Siriraj Hospital, Dr. Chanika met a young patient who would inspire her for the rest of her career. A 12 year old girl, the daughter of a farmer, came to see her presenting signs of heart, kidney and eye disease as a result of diabetes. After treatment she was sent back home, however there was no available local health care that could provide follow up treatment for her serious medical issues. This resulted in a cycle of repeat visits to Dr. Chanika. When once she arrived almost comatose, Dr. Chanika asked what happened to her while she was home? She replied that she had insulin but there was no refrigerator in which to store it, and her family was too concerned with running their farm to have time to be educated about her disease. Yet even in her deteriorating state, this little girl sat at the bedside of other young patients, and spent time reading to those who could not see to read themselves.

The young patient died the following year, but left Dr. Chanika the gift of inspiration. Dr. Chanika knew that the key to improving child health across Thailand involved not only developing top quality child health care facilities, but also teaching parents how to provide the best care at home. Recognizing the importance of developing a health education program to improve child health care, Dr. Chanika convinced doctors and nurses specializing in areas such as child nutrition, psychology and psychiatry, many with training from the United States, to donate their time to treat the poor. She developed her own protocol for education and training, and through her strong reputation she gained approval from the Dean at Siriraj to enact this program over two years. One offshoot of this project, the Diabetes Summer Program, was a camp providing public education about diabetes. The focus was to educate diabetic patients to learn diabetes self-­‐management skills, especially in Thailand where diabetes education programs were not always available. The camp also provided an opportunity for controlled study, improving the hospital’s overall level of expertise.

Eventually Siriraj Hospital was able to raise its own funding to supplement government resources and fund its own programs. Dr. Chanika would remember this many years later when she began the New Life Foundation at Samitivej Hospital.

In 2000, Dr. Chanika was approached by Samitivej Hospital to set up a private facility providing the highest standards of child health care. In Thailand, facilities specifically for the treatment of children were not popular investments; the thought was that general health care facilities were generally good enough. But Dr. Chanika, driven by her beliefs and experiences, accepted the challenge. The original children’s clinic, which opened in 2001, continued to grow and in 2014 was christened Samitivej International Children’s Hospital, Thailand’s first private children’s hospital. More than 140 pediatric specialists now serve the community at Samitivej. Throughout the years, Dr. Chanika has visited children’s hospitals around the world bringing back to Samitivej the same inspiration and expertise that drove her to improve child health care many years ago.

In 2010, Dr. Chanika returned to her dream of providing quality health care for all children, and started the New Life Foundation. The foundation, built entirely through heartfelt donations from the Thai public, was set up to provide critical care surgeries to children of families who could not afford them. Beginning with surgeries for cardiac patients, the program has evolved to include scoliosis treatments and bone marrow transplants. Dr. Chanika remembers telling her fellow doctors and nurses about the program, and their faces lighting up in happiness at the opportunity to provide this type of free treatment at a private hospital. The foundation has provided more than 100 cardiac surgeries and continues to answer the needs of many poor families.

When asked how she envisions the future of health care in Thailand, Dr. Chanika answers that education is at its core. At Siriraj Hospital she initiated the hospital’s accreditation process. Now as a member of Thailand’s Board of Hospital Accreditation, she is able to impress upon other facilities the need for standards and education. Whenever possible, doctors and nurses should be given the opportunity for continued medical education to bring the latest in international medical standards to the country. Exchange programs are being set up with medical facilities in other countries, improving knowledge and care for all involved. At the same time, she understands that public health education is necessary in a country where specialist medical services may not always be nearby. The Diabetes Summer Program still runs each year. Dr. Chanika herself is a noted author of an authoritative book on child health. And she believes in the use of technology such as social media to help educate the public. Dr. Chanika dreams of the day that a family would rather have their child participate in a fun educational, music or arts program in the gardens at Samitivej International Children’s Hospital than play with a toy they cannot easily afford. She recognizes that life begins in utero, and she pushes for improved mother-­‐child health beginning during pregnancy.

As child health care in Thailand evolves to provide improved access to specialized treatments to more families, Dr. Chanika Tuchinda will be at the heart of it. As Dr. Chanika reminds us, “the future of humankind, of the world, depends on children.”

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