Boost resources to help the mentally ill

The crisis in psychiatric services is an example of how obstacles to the recruitment of overseas doctors do not necessarily serve the public interest

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 February, 2017, 2:04am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 February, 2017, 2:04am

Hong Kong generally sets great store by comparisons with international benchmarks that show our public health standards and care meet best practice. There is, however, a glaring exception. A review of mental health statistics by this newspaper shows that patients in some cases are waiting up to more than three years to see a doctor at public hospitals. The need for prompt and sustained treatment of serious mental conditions such as bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia is just as urgent as for heart conditions and other physical ailments.

The reason this need is not being met is that medical manpower has failed to keep pace with a surge in demand for psychiatric services. Evidence of this is that over the five years to December 2015, the number of psychiatric patients rose by 20 per cent to 225,900, while the number of doctors treating them rose by only 3 per cent to 344 up to last year. As a result, new patients have to wait a long time before seeing a doctor – up to 159 weeks or more than three years for those in a stable condition at the specialist outpatient clinics in New Territories East.

Why Hong Kong’s Nimby attitude is a threat to mental health

Together with social workers and occupational therapists, each community psychiatric nurse is expected to handle about 50 patients at a time. According to World Health Organisation standards, Hong Kong is short of about 400 psychiatrists needed in public and private practice to treat new and chronic cases of mental illness. Public safety can be an issue as well as patient welfare. The February 10 arson attack on an MTR train allegedly involving a psychiatric outpatient is a disturbing reminder that mental health remains at the end of a long queue when it comes to resources. Psychiatry may not be a popular specialty with young doctors and the Hospital Authority may face budget restraints. But the government is not short of money to target under-resourcing that puts people’s health and safety at risk. It could start by adopting a benchmark year – say 2012 – when the city-wide average wait for a first appointment was a more reasonable seven weeks. The crisis in psychiatric services is an example of how obstacles to the recruitment of overseas doctors do not necessarily serve the public interest.