Hong Kong's Hospital Authority must fast-track reforms to meet needs of public
A special investigation panel will look into an extraordinary blunder at Tuen Mun Hospital involving nearly 10,000 patients aged over 60. The Hospital Authority has given it up to two months to get to the bottom of things. But the long wait will not dull anticipation of the panel's report on how analyses of a liver test could have been wrongly based on values for the opposite sex, and how the flawed calibration of an analysis machine could have gone undetected for two years.
The public is rightly incredulous. It will expect the panel to assess human or professional error or failure and systemic shortcomings, and suggest remedial measures to prevent a repetition. But its report would be an exception if it does not also echo a familiar refrain of review of hospital performance, especially at Tuen Mun - the pressures caused by budget restraints despite big increases in health spending, and stressed human and medical resources, including shortages of doctors. Indeed, these factors have been blamed for contributing to poor surgical outcomes at Tuen Mun Hospital in the past.
Thankfully, in this case, reviews so far of 1,425 male patients who later died of other causes such as stroke and heart failure have not blamed any deaths directly on the blunder. The hospital is reviewing 4,634 males first because they are more at risk of missing treatment through misinterpreted readings.
The government can easily engineer a quick fix by throwing extra money at the resources and manpower problems. But that is not the long-term solution to an underlying planning problem, which is that the New Territories suffers from a shortage of hospital services from uneven allocation of resources. The development of new towns in the area will exacerbate it. Officials have not done enough to keep up with development and population growth, either in meeting demand for health care or in supplying resources generally.
Fortunately a blueprint for a more sensible and equitable distribution of resources may be found in the recommendations of a steering committee that has undertaken the first full review of the authority's operations in 24 years. Importantly, this includes revamping the existing geographically based clusters of public hospitals to better match resources with the demands of the city's economic and social demographics. Officials recently promised to map out detailed reform plans within three months. They should also commit to fast-tracking them.