Patients' group urges transparency over hospital complaints

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 November, 2012, 3:58am

The government should push private hospitals for greater transparency in handling patients' complaints, and prevent them from "operating behind closed doors", a concern group has urged.

The Patients' Rights Association made the comments after it received a complaint from a 55-year-old patient who paid for cataract surgery three years ago but still requires corrective therapy for her left eye.

The government should tighten quality control over the industry along with its current review of regulations for private health care facilities, the association said.

"While the government is encouraging the development of the private health care market, it should also safeguard the interests of patients using the services", said association spokesman Tim Pang Hung-cheong.

His call echoed a report from the director of audit, published on Wednesday, which faulted the Department of Health for sometimes failing to issue warnings or advisory letters to private hospitals about irregularities in how they handle complaints.

The cataract patient, a Ms Cheung, said she was left with blurred vision and redness in her eye after a 2009 cataract operation at Hong Kong Sanatorium & Hospital in Happy Valley. In a second case, Cheung was getting cancer treatment at the same hospital when she was mistakenly injected with insulin, which "almost killed" her, she said.

The injection made her blood pressure plummet and almost put her into a coma, but luckily her husband and a friend were visiting and alerted the doctor, she said. "I needed to report these cases because I do not want another patient to suffer the same thing," Cheung said.

She complained to the hospital, and it replied in September saying her claim about the eye surgery had not been substantiated, while staff members were unable to corroborate the insulin case. "No further action is required [by the hospital] and no refund can be paid [to Cheung]", it said.

The hospital told the Post it had never refused to investigate complaints, and had looked into Cheung's case thoroughly. It had "addressed the issues raised by Madam Cheung, although not to her satisfaction, as we have declined to refund the demanded sum of HK$190,000", it said.

Cheung paid the hospital that amount for the eye and cancer treatments. She said compensation was not the main reason she had complained, and accused the hospital of operating behind closed doors. "There is no report to tell me what happened during the investigation, which was conducted by their own people. The patient does not learn how the inquiry is conducted … or whether any staff members are being held responsible or penalised."

Two prominent doctors defended the current complaints system. Lawmaker Dr Leung Ka-lau and former Medical Association president Dr Choi Kin, said patients had enough channels for complaining about possible medical blunders - through the Medical Council and the Department of Health. Cheung sent complaints to both of them.

But Pang said the department should take stronger steps. "The department relies on the hospitals to provide information. And even if there is malpractice, the department will only issue a warning letter - they never close down any hospitals or penalise them in other ways."

The Department of Health confirmed it was investigating Cheung's complaint.

The department received 336 complaints about the city's 12 private hospitals between 2008 and last month, 25 of them against the Hong Kong Sanatorium & Hospital. But no hospital's licence has ever been suspended.