Sick situation

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 December, 2003, 12:00am

When the Hospital Authority announced the merger of Hong Kong's two liver transplant centres in January, its chief executive, William Ho Shiu-wei, said teams from both the Prince of Wales Hospital and Queen Mary Hospital would carry out transplants. It would be in the best interests of patients to have a single liver transplant centre to ensure all patients were treated fairly, he said.

Eleven months later, it is clear that what the Hospital Authority has done is not merge the facilities and personnel of the two centres, but simply shut down the one at the Prince of Wales, thereby depriving patients of the facilities and skills of the doctors there.

Because of the 'merger' announced in January, the last transplant at the Prince of Wales was performed in February. However, none of the members of the transplant team at the Prince of Wales, headed by Albert Chui Ka-keung, have been moved to Queen Mary Hospital as a result of the so-called merger.

Already, one patient on the waiting list of the Prince of Wales has died. Another patient says although he was at the top of the Prince of Wales waiting list, he has now been moved down to No22 on the combined list, and does not know if he will live to receive a transplant.

According to Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food Yeoh Eng-kiong, the average waiting time for liver transplants at Queen Mary was 16 months last year while at the Prince of Wales it was 13 months. It is difficult to see how patients are being helped by being put on an even longer waiting list as a result of closing one centre and combining the two lists.

It is puzzling why the Hospital Authority insisted on shutting down the Prince of Wales transplant centre. It cited cost-effectiveness as one major reason for the move. And yet, while the Prince of Wales transplant team has not performed a single transplant for almost a year because it was given no resources, team members are still receiving a combined salary of $6 million a year. Is this cost effectiveness?

Moreover, a liver transplant operation at the Prince of Wales Hospital costs substantially less than one at Queen Mary Hospital. And yet it was the more cost-effective operation that was shut down. Why?

To top it off, the Hospital Authority has rejected offers from private groups of $3.6 million a year to keep the Prince of Wales centre going. So it is difficult to accept that cost played any part in the authority's decision to shut down the transplant centre.

Strangely enough, although the Hospital Authority decided on the closure of the Prince of Wales centre in January, it was still telling patients as recently as July that the liver transplant centre had not been closed. A letter from Ko Wing-man, director of professional services and public affairs at the Hospital Authority, sent on July 30 to the Liver Living Association, an organisation of patients awaiting liver transplants and their relatives, insisted that a merged patients list had only come into effect on July 28 and that both transplant centres would continue to function.

If a merged list only came into effect in July while the Prince of Wales centre had been effectively shut in February, it would suggest that for five months its patients were not on the waiting list of the only transplant centre left in Hong Kong. This would be a disgrace. Even more curiously, the chairman of the Hospital Authority, Leung Che-hung, insisted in a phone-in programme last Wednesday that the Prince of Wales centre was still open and could do transplants. What on earth is going on here?

Dr Chui, former head of the transplant centre, was flabbergasted when told his centre was still open. He said: 'I haven't been given any team members or operating theatre sessions. I can't even do a hernia.'

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator