Government should have a heart - and save lives

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 March, 2009, 12:00am

Portable fire extinguishers have long been standard equipment in public areas so people can act to protect life and property before firefighters arrive. In some countries, that can also be said of equipment with which a person can quickly help the victim of a heart attack, and perhaps save a life while waiting for an ambulance or doctor to arrive - a portable defibrillator which can restore normal heart rhythm.

But not in Hong Kong - with notable exceptions. Even the Hospital Authority has been caught short.

After the recent public outcry over delayed treatment of a man who collapsed with a fatal heart attack outside Caritas Medical Centre, the authority said it would buy 200 portable defibrillators for its institutions. If one had been available, the man may have been treated sooner.

Now, as we report today, the government is to study over the next two years the feasibility of installing automated external defibrillators (AEDs) in public places, and the legal implications arising from their use. That is welcome news in a city where heart disease is the second biggest cause of death.

Hopefully, it will not take two years to decide to implement the measure in some form appropriate to Hong Kong. It is hard to imagine what is generally not feasible about installing the AEDs that could have been overlooked by countries where they are common in public places, including the United States, Britain, Japan, Canada and Australia. At HK$10,000 to HK$20,000 a unit, it cannot be the cost, when it is weighed against the cost in human lives.

Since last year, some government offices have been equipped with AEDs in their lobbies - such as the Central Government Offices and the Murray Building, where staff have had a day's training in the use of them. The take-up of the machines by the private sector for commercial and residential buildings is increasing.

But the Leisure and Cultural Services Department is awaiting the results of the feasibility study before deciding whether to introduce them in libraries, museums and public sports facilities. The airport, with its massive public space and a throughput of 4 million passengers a month, has six defibrillators, but as our story explains, they are not nearly as accessible as in big overseas airports.

The case for more AEDs in an ageing population is easily made on humane and compassionate grounds. Medical experts say the first few minutes after a heart attack are critical to survival. Our ambulance service has a target emergency response time of 12 minutes. But in Hong Kong's gridlocked traffic and at busy times, that can be difficult to meet. Much time is also wasted on unnecessary emergency calls.

An example of potentially life-saving use of an AED occurred last year in a Mong Kok shopping mall, where a customer services supervisor successfully used one on an elderly man and stabilised his heartbeat within three minutes of a heart attack - 10 minutes before an ambulance arrived.

Not everyone would be comfortable intervening in this way. Many would still rather await the arrival of emergency help. That is their right. But experience shows that the provision of defibrillators and training in their use - said to be as easy as playing a video game - can save lives. That should be made more widely possible in Hong Kong sooner rather than later.