Operation of mortuaries needs to be reviewed

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

Losing a child at birth is a profoundly tragic and traumatic experience. One couple in this unhappy situation has now been made to suffer a second time, because a public hospital has accidentally lost the body of their newborn baby. This is inexcusable.

Performing proper mourning rituals is part of a healing process to help people who have lost their loved ones recover and achieve closure. But, because of the serious blunder committed at Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital, the parents now have to entertain the possibility that their baby may not be found for some time, or at all.

It appears a series of human errors contributed to the loss of the body. Hospital officials have disclosed that mortuary staff failed to inform authorities for several days after discovering the mistake. A worker has been suspended and a supervisor reprimanded. But what is urgently needed is for the staff involved to co-operate with police and medical authorities so that every effort is made to find the body. The parents deserve this much from the authorities. Police will now broaden the search to landfills.

According to Hospital Authority Hong Kong East Cluster chief executive Loretta Yam Yin-chun, the baby's body was stored together with that of an adult last month. The adult's body was later claimed by his family. Storing bodies together is discouraged as a matter of policy, unless a mortuary has become overcrowded. Doing so increases the chances of mix-ups and mistakes. Yet, Dr Yam admitted there was enough space at the mortuary at the time. It remains unclear why the two bodies were stored together. This might have contributed to the loss of the body.

The latest incident also raises questions about a new computerised identification system used at mortuaries under the Hospital Authority. The electronic system was installed to avoid such blunders after several mix-ups of bodies at public mortuaries and crematoriums run by other government departments in recent years. Authorities need to examine whether the system has been working as efficiently as it should. However, a system is only as good as the people who operate it. Time and again, mortuary staff have shown carelessness and disregard for the remains of the deceased.

Families need to know their loved ones who have passed away are being treated with respect. This is the basic level of service expected of any reputable organisation that has to handle human remains. Such jobs are unpleasant. They do not naturally attract the most qualified personnel. But with proper training and monitoring, there is no reason why the system cannot be foolproof.

Yet, with every blunder, people's confidence in the system is undermined. In 2005, there were gruesome reports of bodies being piled up on the floor in overcrowded mortuaries. They were followed by highly distressing incidents of mixed-up bodies being sent to the wrong family or mistakenly cremated.

The introduction of bar codes to identify bodies in hospital mortuaries has no doubt helped to improve operations. But it appears there is still room for serious errors. The tasks before the authorities are clear. They must do their utmost to locate the body for the parents. Then, they must review the whole system being used at mortuaries and crematoriums to make sure it functions properly. Staff who are found to be inadequate must be retrained or replaced. As a civilised society, we must make sure those on their last journey are being treated with the utmost respect and dignity.