Private hospitals decry 15-minute target over maternity crises

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 September, 2008, 12:00am

Private hospitals have expressed strong opposition to part of a new government code of practice, which specifies an unprecedented 15-minute response time to maternity emergencies.

The Hong Kong Private Hospitals' Association, representing all of the city's 12 private hospitals, said a 'reasonable' response time for doctors should be judged on a 'case by case basis'. Hospitals worry that patients may use the code to sue doctors if they are one or two minutes late.

The Department of Health will later this month issue its second code of practice for private hospitals, following two maternal deaths this year. The first code was issued in 2003. Under the code, private hospitals would have to make a doctor - either a general practitioner or a specialist - available to attend a mother in fetal distress or suffering from maternal bleeding within 15 minutes.

The pledge is based on the standards adopted by Britain's health service. There have been between one and three maternal deaths in Hong Kong each year in the past decade.

The hospitals must also have a doctor rostered on at all times in three specialities: anaesthetics, obstetrics and surgery.

Association chairman Alan Lau Kwok-lam said the hospitals 'in general' welcomed the code as it would further protect patient safety. Regarding the roster for the three specialities, we are fine with it. However, we are against putting any specific response time requirement in the code,' he said. 'It is not practical.'

All private hospitals are required to have a resident doctor at all time to handle emergencies.

'The resident could be busy helping a patient when a mother next door suddenly develops serious complications. So in that case, the doctor may not be able to attend the mother in 15 minutes. Can we then say it is unreasonable?' Dr Lau said Hong Kong should not blindly follow Britain where the infant and maternal mortality rate was higher.

He said a significant change in the code would be to empower private hospitals to call in help. 'In the past, we needed the attending doctor's consent to call in help from others. But under the new code, there will be a clear roster system and private hospitals will be obliged to call in help.'

Deputy medical superintendent at the Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital Kwong Kwok-hay said the hospital would discuss the 15-minute requirement with its lawyers. 'If a doctor is one minute late can a patient bring the code to the court? We are against having such a rigid time in the code.' Dr Kwong also said patients would face higher costs if a hospital had to hire more doctors.

But Patients' Rights Association spokesman Tim Pang Hung-cheong said it would draw a clear line to assess services. 'I don't see any good reasons for an objection. I think patients will accept a higher cost if they are better protected.'

A senior private doctor said the government should conduct a wide-ranging consultation to hear views from doctors instead of just private hospitals' management.

Death toll

The number of maternal deaths recorded in Hong Kong since 1998, including this year: 17