Rules are no substitute for common sense

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 September, 2009, 12:00am

The Hospital Authority makes much of its policies, procedures, rules and regulations. A series of blunders at public hospitals in recent months has meant the protective measures have been frequently reviewed and strengthened. Yet another report has been ordered, this time into an alleged delay by Caritas Medical Centre in treating a seven-year-old boy with an eye injury. As with an incident at the same facility nine months ago, the matter would seem to be less one of adherence to guidelines than the basic element of health care: common sense.

Emergency treatment for the boy was delayed because he did not have any identification. Hospital rules state that non-residents are not entitled to subsidised health care. A refundable HK$700 fee was demanded; the child's grandmother, who was accompanying him, did not have enough cash. Treatment was only given an hour later, when the boy's father arrived with a birth certificate. Fortunately, his eye was found to have been only slightly injured.

A lesson should have been learned after last December's debacle. A man collapsed outside the hospital's main office and his son asked a receptionist to get an ambulance. She refused, telling him he should instead call the general emergency number, 999. A passing doctor called for an ambulance, but a security guard was sent by mistake. The sick man arrived at the hospital's emergency room 26 minutes later; he was declared dead shortly after.

Rules and regulations are essential for the smooth running of a hospital. They eliminate the uncertainty in caring for patients. However, each and every situation that staff may encounter can never be completely covered by checklists. There will occasionally be times where blind following of bureaucracy has to be cast aside in favour of independent thinking.

The authority's chief executive, Shane Solomon, has called for an investigation into the boy's case. Review and strengthening of safety mechanisms are likely. But Solomon would do better to take practical steps: teaching his staff to use common sense when confronted with emergency cases.