Reassuring patients

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 November, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 November, 1997, 12:00am

Earlier this year, the Hospital Authority took the first step towards halting a long catalogue of surgical blunders and malpractice. They revised internal practices to ease workloads among medical workers and free senior staff from time-consuming clerical duties. Their guidelines included recommendations for reporting 'incidents' or malpractice within one working day. They have followed this through along with a new set of proposals to make the complaints mechanism more open and more accessible to patients and their families.

Public disquiet about hospital procedures rose to new heights this year as stories emerged of patients being given the wrong blood type, the wrong injections, and having healthy organs removed during surgery.

To its credit, the Hospital Authority set up an independent team of specialists to look into the blood transfusion incident, and to suggest ways of tightening safety procedures. But at yesterday's symposium it turned down a demand from patients' rights activists to make that team a permanent fixture.

To do so would be too expensive according to the authority, which proposes instead to draft more medical experts and lay people on to the public complaints committee.

These measures obviously fall short of what the rights group aimed for, but, if they are implemented promptly, the general public will find them reassuring.

How the system is set up is less important than what it is able to achieve. Patients have to be convinced that they have recourse to a complaints procedure which can investigate incidents swiftly and objectively with the full co-operation of the hospital concerned, without coming up against closed ranks and cover-up tactics.

Transparency is just as much in the interests of medical staff as patients. If mistakes are caused by over-work, an open investigation will establish that and steps can be taken to remedy the situation. The public does not want an inquisition into medical mistakes, merely a reliable process which represents patients' interests, while examining the facts dispassionately and even-handedly, in fairness to all involved.