Critical care

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 January, 2009, 12:00am

The government has, in recent months, been severely criticised because of its mishandling of a number of controversial incidents, including its refusal to charter flights to bring home Hong Kong tourists stranded in Thailand. The administration's popularity rating actually began to fall when it announced the names of the new undersecretaries and political assistants last year. It was widely felt that the political appointment system needed to be expanded, and the Legislative Council approved the relevant expenditure. But the government became a target of criticism because of its inadequacies in reacting to the public call for greater transparency regarding appointees' salaries and nationalities.

Since then, many media outlets have been eager to find fault with the administration. It is also unfortunate that the media leads some officials by the nose, as they attach greater importance to pleasing the public than adhering to policy principles.

The latest example is the saga arising from the death of a man who suffered a heart attack outside Caritas Medical Centre. The way the incident was handled obviously fell short of public expectations, exposing problems of miscommunication.

However, it is unjust of the media, without carrying out further investigations, to accuse the hospital of refusing to save a life. This contributed to the public perception that our health care system is bureaucratic, and its staff lack common sense and follow hospital guidelines too rigidly.

Caritas chief executive Ma Hok-cheung, who had originally insisted that the hospital did nothing wrong, later bowed to public pressure and apologised, helping to reinforce the prejudice that the hospital should be held responsible for the death.

I visited the medical centre last Tuesday to try to understand more about the incident, which was actually caused by a number of factors. The emergency unit of the hospital, built on a hill, can be reached by car via a slope.

But road signs are lacking, and the victim's son - who was trying to take his father to the hospital - passed by this slope, ending up at the Wai Ming Block instead. There were no medical staff at the block, and only one receptionist was on duty because it was a Saturday. To get to the emergency unit from there, it is necessary to take a lift to the podium on the fifth floor and then walk for a few minutes.

If the victim's son and the staff member at the reception desk had communicated better, the victim could have been taken to the emergency unit by car - only, the spot where the victim collapsed is a one-way road, and it could have taken the victim's son eight to 10 minutes to get to the unit.

In fact, only a couple of minutes after the victim's son sought help at the reception desk, a passing surgeon came to their aid. He gave the victim cardiac massage, although the surgeon could find no pulse, and immediately alerted the emergency unit.

If the emergency unit had been equipped with a portable defibrillator, medical staff could have been sent to the victim. Alas, it has an outdated, bulky unit. The only thing to do was wait for an ambulance with a defibrillator. Unfortunately, the man was certified dead at the emergency unit - 26 minutes after he reached the entrance of the Wai Ming Block.

The incident was indeed unfortunate. The receptionist, a non-medical staff member with no relevant training, did her best to contact people who could help. Blaming the hospital management and the emergency unit for not offering help does not make sense, as they had no knowledge of the incident at that time. The coroner will hold an inquiry; the real story has yet to be revealed.

For Caritas Medical Centre, there is certainly a lot of room for improvement - including upgrading vital equipment and improving road signs.

The media and the public should not have jumped to conclusions so quickly, putting unnecessary pressure on the hospital and its staff. Hong Kong is already in a state of anomie. We must learn to respect the facts and not resort to sensationalism.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator