Rules rewritten after radioactive blunder

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am

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Labels will be clearer, access restricted and staff training stepped up after a refuse bag of radioactive waste was mistakenly sent out from Tuen Mun Hospital's nuclear medicine unit.

The refuse bag was sent by a cleaner to a chemical waste treatment centre two days before its radioactivity expired.

Dr Albert Lo Chi-yuen, chief executive of the Hospital Authority's New Territories West group, said yesterday that the waste material had been kept in a lead box in a locked room.

He said the cleaner involved was a relief worker unfamiliar with procedures on handling waste from the nuclear medicine unit, which uses small doses of radioactive substances in diagnosis or treatments. Nor had the cleaner been properly supervised by other staff.

'All staff must follow very strict guidelines in handling radioactive substances, and very few people have the key to go into the room,' he said. 'There is some room for improvement in terms of supervision. Now, only staff from the nuclear medicine unit can handle radioactive substances.'

Boxes were now better labelled and could only be opened by physicists, while bins for normal and radioactive waste had been moved further apart to avoid confusion, Lo said.

All the staff who unwittingly handled the waste en route to the treatment centre had been given health checks and found not to have suffered any ill-effects, he said.

Separately, the New Territories West group hired 49 full-time and 22 part-time doctors in July. It also added 180 nurses this month. But Lo expected that by the end of the year they would still need 20 doctors and 30 nurses.

The departments of medicine and radiology were under the most pressure due to staff shortages, he said.

The hospital no longer took non-local mothers for its obstetrics service, but Lo said the rising number of local mothers was adding to pressure on the department.

'In the past, we've had 400 to 500 local mothers giving birth at the hospital in the busiest times, but in the next few months we're expecting 500 to 550,' he said, adding that nurses would have to work longer night shifts.

An increasing and ageing population and more low-income families and care homes for the elderly were boosting demand for medical services in the area, Lo said.

The Hospital Authority gave the New Territories West group a HK$4.47 billion operating fund this year, up 7 per cent from 2010. It plans to add 13 beds to the emergency department at Pok Oi Hospital, Yuen Long, which will enable it to treat an extra 280 patients. Tuen Mun Hospital's oncology department will have eight extra beds and will be able to treat 220 more patients.

Two new clinics will be opened in Tin Shui Wai and care for the terminally ill will be strengthened.