Thanks to a heavily subsidised health care system, Hong Kong is one of the few places in the world where the sick do not have to worry about the cost when seeking treatment in public hospitals. The private sector, however, is a different story. Patients are often shocked when given the bill. This occurs because not only do private practitioners charge more but also the bill comes with an array of hidden charges that can add up to an astronomical amount. While the lack of transparency and predictability may not be an issue for the rich, it deters the price-conscious from using private hospitals, even if the cost is actually affordable.
After years of reform discussions, there is finally some good news. In a welcome move, the government intends to require by law that patients be told of the likely treatment cost in advance. This is a step in the right direction. The number of disputes over medical bills received by the Department of Health - 58 between 2008 and 2012 - calls for better regulation.
As long as it is affordable, most patients are willing to pay what it takes to regain their health. But that does not mean there is room for arbitrary charges. Transparency is essential. Ideally, fixed packages for different treatments should be introduced; and patients should be allowed to choose according to their budget. But in reality, health care is more complicated than ordering from a restaurant menu. Medical costs vary according to the experience of the doctor as well as the complexity of the treatment involved. Unforeseeable complications also require special treatment and hence incur additional cost. It makes sense, therefore, to consider allowing hospitals and doctors to give a price range instead of an absolute amount. To cater for exceptional situations, exemptions are also worth studying.
The proposed safeguards go beyond consumer rights. The current reliance on public hospitals stems partly from the lack of transparency and predictability in the private sector. If patients can better estimate their medical bills and shop around for services that suit their needs, more may feel comfortable about switching from the public sector. The enhanced transparency will pave the way for the long-awaited medical insurance scheme, which is a key part in the health reform process. The greater use of health insurance and private services by those who can afford them will, hopefully, reduce the burden on public hospitals and ultimately lead to better use of resources for those who are in genuine need of subsidised health care.