Private hospitals not watched closely enough, minister says

Health chief admits department hasn't been tough enough in wake of critical audit report

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 December, 2012, 3:45am

Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man admitted yesterday that the Department of Health "has not fully exercised its power" in monitoring private hospitals.

The minister also said the department, which regulates private hospitals, would take more steps to ensure private doctors suspected of misconduct face disciplinary hearings. The comments came as health chiefs respond to Audit Commission criticism that they have been lax in regulating the private sector.

Private hospitals may face pressure from the government to be more open about medical blunders, with Ko saying that the private institutions should align their policies on reporting mistakes with those of public hospitals.

"It is true that different private hospitals may have different motivations in reporting their incidents," Ko told legislators at a special hearing on the audit report. "They each have their own procedure for handling patients' cases, as they are different companies. But I hope their reporting system can move in the direction of the public hospitals'."

In the public system, hospitals have to report blunders to the Hospital Authority, which investigates them and issues reports.

The audit report said the department had failed to regulate private hospitals adequately. It also said there was "a risk of under-reporting" of blunders, given the voluntary reporting system for private hospitals.

Under the current system, all private hospitals should report a sentinel event - one involving death or serious injury - to the department within 24 hours of occurrence and submit a full investigation report within four weeks.

Only 56 per cent of events were reported on time from 2008 to 2011, the report said, but the government took no action against those that missed the time limit.

In the same period, only three medical incidents at private hospitals were made public by the department, which did not reveal the names of the hospitals or details of the events.

The toughest penalty applied to private hospitals was the issuing of advisory or warning letters, and there were few of these. No hospital has ever been refused re-registration.

Civic Party lawmaker Alan Leong Kah-kit criticised the department for under-reporting medical incidents.

Independent legislator Paul Tse Wai-chun said a better system should be developed to penalise private hospitals.

Ko said the department was considering whether to issue different levels of warnings, and to do more to ensure professionals suspected of misconduct face disciplinary action.

"In the past, the department put more emphasis on privacy, so it never referred a doctor to the Medical Council. But now I agree it can take a more active role in cases. We will directly refer cases to the related authority for further investigation, if we gain the consent of patients."