Minister kept in dark for 9 days over baby swap

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 August, 2009, 12:00am

The health minister said he was upset he had not learned of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital baby mix-up until Monday morning - hours after the media were told and nine days after the blunder was discovered.

It was also revealed yesterday that York Chow Yat-ngok's staff did not tell him of the blunder after they were told of it by the Hospital Authority.

The Food and Health Bureau would not say how the secretary for food and health found out.

A bureau spokeswoman confirmed that the Hospital Authority informed 'relevant officials' of the blunder on August 9. 'Our colleagues thought that as the authority was still looking into the matter, there was no need to inform the secretary yet.'

Patients' Rights Association spokesman Tim Pang Hung-cheong criticised the government for 'not understanding ordinary citizens'.

'The blunder is so serious and raised so much concern, how can the officials think that there was no need to report it?' Mr Pang said.

The authority should formalise an alert system to inform the government of hospital blunders, he said.

Two babies were swapped shortly after birth on August 7. The mix-up was not discovered until the next day, when one of the mothers found the wrong identification bracelet in her baby's cot. The mothers nursed the wrong babies for five days before DNA tests confirmed the mistake. The incident was not revealed publicly until late on Sunday night, when the hospital issued a statement.

Dr Chow said yesterday he only learned of the blunder early on Monday. 'I was upset because normally we are informed a bit earlier.'

Although the authority is an independent statutory body, it is accountable to the secretary for food and health, who is responsible for monitoring its performance. An authority spokeswoman said the blunder was reported to 'relevant officials' in the Food and Health Bureau on August 9. She declined to comment further.

Mr Pang said it was problematic that the media had learned about the blunder before the health minister. 'When a serious incident like this happens, the government can arrange help from other departments. It should be informed immediately.'

He cited as an example the disappearance of a baby's corpse at Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital last year, when police were called to search a landfill.

Dr Chow's ignorance of the blunder could 'reflect an administrative problem' and could affect policymaking. Mr Pang urged the government to establish guidelines to alert the authority of blunders.

Civic Party lawmaker Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, who is on the Legislative Council's health services panel, said Dr Chow should have been informed on August 9, the day authority officials met both sets of parents.

'A delay of days is unacceptable,' she said.

Hospital officials said on Monday that the blunder had not been revealed to the public until eight days afterwards because 'they were trying to respect the parents' privacy', but Ms Eu said this was an unacceptable excuse. The delay showed hospital administrators were trying to cover up the incident and the hospital's chief executive should be disciplined.

Dr Chow said he must bear some responsibility for the blunder. He had the responsibility to ensure the authority was doing its duty in keeping up standards and to be accountable for mistakes.

The privacy watchdog has launched an investigation after ruling that the babies' identity bracelets were personal data.

The bracelets contained the names and personal particulars of the mothers, but Privacy Commissioner Roderick Woo Bun said these were the first 'personal identifiers' assigned to the babies.

Additional reporting by Joshua But