Taiwan is home to a wide range of medical services and world-class healthcare that would seem to promise long, healthy lives for the 23 million people who comprise its population, but despite the abundance of these resources, not everyone has equal access to them.
There is a gap in the nation’s medical resource distribution system that is leaving many locals without adequate care, even as Taiwan has started promoting medical tourism to foreign visitors.
The disparity in access to healthcare can be seen in doctor-to-patient ratios in urban versus rural areas. For example, in Taipei there is one doctor for every 62 people, but on the other side of the country, the approximately 4,000 residents of the remote township of Daren (達仁) in Taitung County have to rely largely on one physician.
The physician, Hsu Chao-pin (徐超斌), is a member of the area’s Paiwan tribe and puts in 400 hours of work a month at the Daren Township Public Health Center.
Hsu often goes to his patients because most of them are elderly or impoverished and going to see him is a luxury in the 300km2 township.
He has to cover mountainous terrain to get to his patients and travels enough kilometers in one week to equal the circumference of Taiwan. All that hard work contributed to the 46-year-old suffering a stroke nearly eight years ago.
Despite Hsu’s great efforts, some of his patients have nearly given up hope of getting the care they need.
“If you can’t treat me, I would rather die,” said an elderly man surnamed Chu (朱), whose lung tumor remains untreated because he cannot spend the time or money it would take to be treated at an appropriate hospital.
The Daren center is open Monday to Saturday, but patients with emergencies or serious conditions have to make the 60km trip to Taitung City to seek care.
Making the trip more arduous is the lack of public transport over the mountains from Daren to Taitung. Left with no other choice, residents in need of emergency or serious care can only hire taxis at a cost of up to NT$3,000, which is about a month’s living expenses for some. Given this, many township residents choose not to make the trip.
For those used to the convenience of life in the cities along Taiwan’s western coast, having to take a long trip to a hospital is unimaginable, but a lack of resources is the norm in Taitung.
As of 2012, Taipei squeezed 24 metropolitan-level hospitals into 272km2 of land. At 13 times that size, Taitung has only one metropolitan hospital and five smaller community-level hospitals, all of which are concentrated in Taitung City.
Yet if medical care is scarce in Taitung City, the four southern townships of Taimali (太麻里), Jinfeng (金峰), Dawu (大武) and Daren are veritable healthcare deserts.
Sandwiched between mountains and sea, the 18,000 residents of these townships can only pray that they do to fall ill at night, on weekends and holidays, when the local healthcare facilities are closed.
Exacerbating these problems is the county’s relative poverty, with statistics showing that its annual income per household in 2011 was NT$673,000 (US$22,200), far below the national average of almost NT$1.16 million that year.
Taitung County is also home to one-third of the nation’s Aborigines, many of whom are struggling with poverty and unemployment.
Thanks largely to this lack of facilities and medical staff, the county has earned the dubious title of Taiwan’s cancer capital.