Guidelines won't change indifference to strangers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 January, 2009, 12:00am

The investigation report on the incident in which a man collapsed near Caritas Medical Centre and later died of a heart attack reads like a black comedy.

There was a 26-minute delay before he was transported to the emergency room at the centre, even though he was just across the street from the hospital's street-level entrance.

The report does not place the blame on anyone, and hints at remedial action, including more guidelines, management initiatives and training for staff about dealing with the media.

My take of the incident is different. It confirms what we know about the culture of Hong Kong society as a whole. It also says a lot about some of our leaders in the medical field.

In general, Hong Kong people are not helpful to strangers.

Take, for example, the MTR: passengers rush on board trains, desperate to get a seat, hampering those who are trying to get out of the carriage.

Rarely do we see anyone giving up a seat for the elderly or pregnant, unless they are friends or relatives.

Years ago, when we had to deal with the Vietnamese refugee problem, callers to a radio talk show angrily suggested that the government should push them back out to the sea, to be eaten by sharks.

The young receptionist at Caritas hospital, who told the victim's son to phone 999 himself, grew up in such a culture, and probably has the attitude of a generation some columnists in Chinese newspapers label the 'excreta youths'.

What she told the man's son when he came to her for help was not unexpected; after all, it was not her job to deal with emergencies, and the man was a total stranger.

The hospital's chief executive, Ma Hok-cheung, had the temerity to defend the receptionist and said that she had complied with hospital guidelines.

I doubt very much that the hospital has guidelines for compassion and kindness and, even if it did, guidelines are not meant to require unconditional compliance.

Compassion and kindness do not require special training, either. Ask the receptionist what she would have done if the dying man had been a relative, and the answer would be the correct one.

A hospital is there to help sick people and to save lives. If Dr Ma did not think there was anything wrong with the receptionist's handling of the case, he is obviously in the wrong business.

When asked to comment on the incident, Leung Ka-lau, the legislative councillor for the medical constituency, said that asking hospital staff to transfer patients from the outside 'is not as simple as people think, as it requires logistics and extra resources'. This, of course, comes from someone whose only agenda is to seek shorter working hours (and equal pay) for young doctors working for the Hospital Authority.

To dispatch two able staff with resuscitation skills to the site with a stretcher and carry the dying man promptly to the emergency room might not have saved him, but it would certainly have saved the reputation of the hospital, and dodged all the criticism from the public.

A few minutes of two people's time and a stretcher, in my opinion, do not warrant a serious consideration of logistics strategy and resource allocation, or the pontification of an honourable Legco member.

The staff at all levels in the Caritas Medical Centre, from the chief executive officer to the receptionist, are a cross-section of Hong Kong society. The culture at the centre is representative of Hong Kong in general.

To have more guidelines and management initiatives won't change anything.

Maybe civic education, to groom a kinder and gentler generation, will bring in a better future. We can start with using the proper etiquette on the MTR.

Dr Feng Chi-shun is consultant pathologist at St Paul's Hospital in Causeway Bay