Lack of hi-tech medical equipment unacceptable

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 May, 2010, 12:00am

The availability of hi-tech medical equipment does not necessarily lead to better health care. But patients are clearly placed at a disadvantage if key pieces of equipment are scarce or outdated.

It is ironic that in a city obsessed with hi-tech gadgets and with a richly endowed government sitting on piles of reserves, our public hospitals are still full of ageing equipment. An internal study commissioned by the Hospital Authority finds we are near the bottom of developed economies when it comes to the provision of advanced medical technology. It is, on the other hand, reassuring that it also finds our city's life expectancy to be among the highest in the world, and maternal and infant mortality among the lowest. In other words, we have got the basics right but still need to improve significantly in the provision of advanced medical services.

For example, Singapore - a city state most comparable to conditions in our own city - has many more scanners for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computerised tomography (CT). Such advanced equipment helps with early diagnosis, which is key to the effective treatment of such serious diseases as cancer, blocked blood vessels and debilitating heart conditions. However, unless they are ready to dig into their own pockets to pay for private examinations, patients at public hospitals have to wait an average of 160 days for an MRI scan and about a month for a CT scan. This is unacceptable for a rich city like Hong Kong.

The authority is right to acknowledge the problem and is moving to rectify it. It has been given HK$600 million to upgrade medical equipment for this financial year. That will, hopefully, cut waiting time and provide timely care.

Even so, hi-tech equipment is not a substitute for experience and judgment. As shown by studies overseas, too much technology sometimes causes doctors to recommend excessive intervention and investigations, which do not necessarily benefit patients. The authority needs to take a two-pronged approach to encourage good doctoring while making available the best medical technology has to offer.