Private hospitals failing to deliver on maternity service

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 April, 2011, 12:00am


Pregnant mainland women have been flocking to Hong Kong to give birth, adding pressure to our health care system. The number has been climbing rapidly over the past few years - from 27,000 cases in 2007 to over 40,000 last year.

Last year, 88,500 babies were born in Hong Kong. Among this number, 40,874 were born to mainland mothers, with most under the care of private hospitals.

But it is public hospitals that have been affected the most. To meet demand, private hospitals have been poaching staff from the public sector, especially from maternity units, leaving public hospitals short of staff. This has seriously affected the quality of services in maternity wards at eight of our public hospitals.

Last week, a group of senior obstetricians at public hospitals called on the government to tackle the problem and limit the number of mainland women coming to the city to give birth.

In fact, we have been seeing an influx of expectant mothers from the mainland for more than 10 years. The growing demand came close to a tipping point in 2007, drawing public attention and concern, and prompting local pregnant women to take to the streets to demand government action.

To alleviate the problem, the government imposed a charging system for non-local residents giving birth at public hospitals -HK$39,000 for a maternity package and HK$48,000 for those with no appointment. The charging scheme eased the pressure only temporarily, as mainland incomes have risen and the renminbi has gained strength.

Each year, about a quarter of the 43,000 babies born in public hospitals have mainland parents.

The private sector could do more to help its public counterparts. Yet private hospitals are reluctant to improve their maternity services even though they profit from them.

Not only do private hospitals recruit maternity ward staff from the public sector to cope with rising demand, but they also take advantage of the well-established public system. For example, they rely on newborn intensive care units at public hospitals instead of providing their own. Only one private hospital has a small unit, with two beds, despite the fact that there is an obvious demand. About 2 per cent of newborns need to be put in intensive care for various reasons.

It is unfair that private hospitals are making huge profits, but Hong Kong taxpayers end up having to foot the bill.

Private hospitals have an obligation to provide the best services because they are charging top rates. Providing intensive care is part of the maternity package. They are not sharing the burden of this cross-border childbirth problem but adding to it by taking resources away from the public sector, which is outrageous.

Private hospitals should develop their own newborn intensive care units and if one hospital cannot cope, they should join forces and establish one to be shared among private hospitals.

Earlier this week, Secretary for Food and Health Dr York Chow Yat-ngok met representatives from private hospitals to try to persuade them to limit the intake of pregnant mainland women so they could give priority to local mothers. The Private Hospitals Association refused to impose a quota or cut beds, arguing that it would lead to a 'waste of resources'.

It is obvious that private hospitals want to make a quick profit but without having to invest to improve the overall service. They are wrong to disregard the ethical principle of providing essential services for patients.

This cross-border childbirth trend will continue for years, so private hospitals should expand their facilities to match rising demand if they really have foresight.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.