In Vietnam, like many countries in Southeast Asia, the commonly used approach of center-based compulsory drug treatment (CCT) has been criticized on human rights ground. Meanwhile, community-based voluntary methadone maintenance treatment (MMT) has been implemented for nearly a decade with promising results. Reform-minded leaders have been seeking empirical evidence of the costs and effectiveness associated with these two main treatment modalities. Conducting evaluations of these treatments, especially where randomization is not ethical, presents challenges. The aim of this paper is to discuss political challenges and methodological issues when conducting cost-effectiveness studies within the context of a non-democratic Southeast Asian country.
A retrospective analysis of the political and scientific challenges that were experienced in the study design, sample size determination, government approval and ethics approvals, participant recruitment, data collection, and determination of sources, and quantification of cost and effectiveness data was undertaken. As a consequence of the non-randomized design, analysis of patient characteristics for both treatment types was undertaken to identify the magnitude of baseline group differences. Concordance between self-reported heroin use and urine drug testing was undertaken to determine the reliability of self-report data in a politically challenging environment.
We demonstrate that conducting research around compulsory treatment in a non-democratic society is feasible, yet it is politically challenging and requires navigation between science and politics. We also demonstrate that engagement with the government decision makers in the research conception, implementation, and dissemination of the results increases the likelihood of research evidence being considered for change in a contentious drug policy area.