Hundreds die needlessly as the city's bureaucrats dither

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 March, 2007, 12:00am

I have just completed a two-year term as a member of the public liaison group for the Hong Kong fire and ambulance services. It was a rewarding experience, which I strongly encourage others to consider. As a non-speaker of Cantonese, I was deeply touched by the efforts of all concerned to make me feel welcome and appreciated.

I want to share some observations from my experience with the community at large. First, the fire and ambulance services are staffed and equipped to world-class standards. In addition, the men and women who comprise both the command-and-control structure and the rank and file exemplify what it means to be decent and dedicated. Having said this, unfortunately there are aspects of the services largely out of their control that result in literally hundreds of Hong Kong people dying needlessly each year. What really irks me is that this problem could be solved quite easily.

Unlike most modern cities, Hong Kong despatches its ambulances on a 'first come, first served' basis. The 30-year-old tennis player with a sprained knee at the Hong Kong Country Club calling at 10.30am on a Saturday gets the ambulance first over the family calling from Ocean Park a minute later as their 65-year-old grandfather keels over unconscious with the symptoms of a heart attack. In many cases, the grandfather waits and dies, while the tennis player with the twisted knee is briskly whisked to hospital.

To deal with the reality of limited resources and rising demand, most fire and ambulance services in first-world cities have implemented very basic assessment systems over the phone to allow the despatcher to prioritise treatment for a large number of patients. These triage systems are well developed, fully tested and work well around the world.

The Hong Kong fire and ambulance services have all the software and systems necessary to implement such a system, and could do so in very short order. Indeed, they are desperately keen to do so and have been ready to launch for at least 18 months. However, for reasons totally unfathomable to me, the wheels of government that oversee the provision of emergency services bureaucratically dither. Day in, day out, the sprained knee gets priority over the heart attack, and hundreds of people die.

Most first-world cities have heart-attack survival rates approaching 30 per cent. Can you guess Hong Kong's? Less than 1 per cent, and falling. Now you know one of the biggest reasons why.