People must prepare for changes to health care

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2007, 12:00am

The best things in life are invariably ones we take for granted - and high on that list is our public health-care system. Few governments in the world provide medical treatment to their citizens at such a high standard for so low a cost. While we are well aware that this is not sustainable, the message that what we now have will dramatically change has not sunk in. Why should it when the government talks about the need for reform but is slow to implement it.

A consultation paper on health-care financing has been promised in coming months - more than a decade after the issue was first raised - although it may yet be years before recommendations become reality. It is therefore good that the Hospital Authority is bridging the gap by proposing schemes that will make us more aware of the need to alter our ways.

As we report today, plans are afoot to introduce a telephone advice system and 24-hour clinics to take the strain off emergency rooms. At present, people turn unthinkingly to this section of public hospitals after hours no matter how minor an ailment may be, thereby avoiding a visit to a private doctor or a clinic the next day. Nobody in such circumstances can be turned away - but it comes at a cost to taxpayers and puts undue stress on doctors and nurses who do not need such extra pressures. Circumventing the nightly flood of unnecessary cases is therefore in the authority's interests.

The worth of the proposed arrangements will only be determined through trials. It may well be that the telephone advice scheme does not catch on in a small place such as Hong Kong where doctors are readily available. Establishing 24-hour clinics around the city is more likely to succeed in drawing patients away from emergency rooms.

Both measures will have an immediate side effect: letting people know that attitudes towards public health must change. This will be a small step on a path that will increasingly become broader.

A more financially viable system is needed and we will have to shoulder the costs. The model has yet to be determined, but it is important that in the meantime, the government makes it clear that what we now have cannot be taken for granted.