HK may get telemedical clinic

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

A telemedical centre may be introduced in Hong Kong to provide health care at home and direct patients away from the over-burdened public emergency rooms, the Hospital Authority chairman said.

Anthony Wu Ting-yuk said the authority was keen to explore 'innovative ideas' to improve the quality of service and cut waiting time. Among them were providing medical advice by telephone and setting up 24-hour community health centres in each of the 18 districts.

Mr Wu had said the measures could help reduce the misuse of public accident and emergency rooms.

Telemedical services are used in countries such as Britain and Australia, where residents have to travel long distances to hospital.

Britain's National Health Service has been running the 'NHS Direct' service since 1997. It provides 24-hour telephone health care and a health information website with a self-help guide.

'I have visited the service in the UK and it is good,' Mr Wu said. 'Patients can get advice from nurses through the phone. I think it worthwhile to explore such services for Hong Kong.'

Mr Wu said experienced nurses who staff phones would consider cases by a 'decision tree' and patients will be advised on whether they need to go to the emergency room or consult their doctors.

The authority introduced a HK$100 emergency room fee in late 2002, but it said that in 2006-07, 68 per cent of the 2 million visits to the 14 public emergency rooms were not urgent.

Joseph Lee Kok-long, the legislator representing the health care sector and an authority board member, supports the idea. Mr Lee, a nursing academic, said providing telemedical services would be 'a win-win situation' for hospitals and patients.

'A child running a fever at night may not need to go to the emergency room at once,' he said. 'Parents can do some simple steps to bring down the temperature first and observe the situation for another hour or two. If the temperature drops, the parents can wait and take the child to a family doctor in the morning.

'It is a hardship for a patient to travel from home to a hospital in the middle of the night and wait for a few hours for a consultation.'

But Medical Association president Choi Kin warned the authority was 'asking for trouble' if it introduced telemedicine because of the complicated medical-legal issues.

'Who will bear the responsibility if the medical staff give out wrong advice?' Dr Choi said. 'There are many reasons behind fever. A patient could be suffering from meningitis or pneumonia.'

He said in western countries where telemedicine was provided, patients knew more about medication, as drug names were in English, the patients' native language.

'In Hong Kong, some patients do not even know what paracetamol [a painkiller] is,' Dr Choi said. 'They may not be able to present clearly their symptoms or medication to the staff manning the telephone lines.'

Dr Choi said a better family doctor system in Britain also meant telemedicine worked better there.