Open policy on medical errors a healthy step

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 August, 2007, 12:00am

The Hospital Authority's new policy of openness and transparency to improve the quality of its service is a laudable step. With Hong Kong's rise as a destination for mainland patients, the move should serve as an example for the private sector to follow.

Given the spate of serious medical mishaps in public hospitals in recent months, a better approach to the way in which such incidents were dealt with was clearly needed. That some had been leaked to the media by relatives was inevitable in light of their nature - one, involving a young cancer patient who died, was the subject of an international alert by the World Health Organisation warning about the procedure used.

Keeping such matters quiet through not distinguishing their seriousness or having a time frame for acknowledgment, as had been the authority's practice, does not make for better medicine. Lessons can only be learned from mistakes.

The rigid reporting procedures announced yesterday go firmly in that direction. Naming, shaming and blaming is not the objective, nor is it because of flaws in the system - public health care in Hong Kong remains among the best in the world. Rather, it is to ensure that all incidents, no matter whether minor or serious, are quickly recorded and made known so that all with a stake in our health system can strive to make it of the highest possible quality.

Under the three-step approach being adopted on October 1, mistakes will be openly reported, why they happened analysed and the lesson learned taken on board in all hospitals. As the authority's chief executive, Shane Solomon, says, the most difficult part will be building a culture where mistakes are openly admitted.

Mistakes are part of human nature, even for highly trained medical staff. As hard as it may be for them to admit blame, they have to accept that doing so when they have erred is in the interests of the entire medical system.

For this reason, private hospitals must also consider such a policy. Hong Kong's growing reputation as a centre for medical excellence is attracting increasing numbers of non-resident patients, particularly from the mainland. Ensuring the same standards as the public health system will increase esteem and, with time, business.

Implementation would not be so straightforward, though. Many private hospital doctors are not on staff, making them more personally liable for their actions. Complaints against them are generally taken up by the Medical Council, a self-regulating body.

In such circumstances, it would be up to the individual hospitals to adopt the same reporting system as that to be introduced into the public sector. Given that these hospitals are sometimes in competition for particular medical services, it would be even more difficult for them to admit to blunders.

Nonetheless, the open and transparent approach is one that they must consider. Hong Kong's increasing stature as a medical tourism destination could prove important to our economy and it is one that should be capitalised on. Only in Australia is there such a reporting system. General adoption by all our hospitals would give Hong Kong an edge as a centre of medical tourism over rivals like Singapore and Thailand.

The Hospital Authority is taking our public health system to new heights with its decision and every effort has to be made to ensure it works effectively. Following suit would be beneficial for the private sector - and Hong Kong.