Operations delayed as Hong Kong hospitals struggle to cope with flu surge

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 January, 2014, 5:41pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 January, 2014, 2:39pm

A senior Hospital Authority official has apologised to patients forced to sleep on temporary beds and facing long waits as major public hospitals struggle to cope with a recent surge in flu cases.

Around 600 non-urgent operations will be delayed in the coming weeks as manpower is diverted to deal with demand, Dr Lee Koon-hung, the authority's director of cluster services, said yesterday.

"We extend our apologies to patients enduring long waits in the accident and emergency departments and crowded environments in the medical wards," Lee said.

Patient numbers peaked at the start of this month but had fallen in recent days. "If the cold weather continues into the lunar new year, we expect the numbers to rise again," said Lee.

About 20 per cent of emergency department inpatients in the week to January 15 were suffering from influenza, the highest proportion since last year's winter flu peak, according to Department of Health data.

Daily visits to all emergency units jumped from an average of 5,800 to 6,000 this month. Numbers peaked at 7,050 on January 6, the highest single-day intake for two years.

For emergency patients looking for a bed within medical departments at the Prince of Wales Hospital and Queen Elizabeth Hospital, long waiting times during peak periods are nothing new.

But Tuen Mun Hospital, United Christian Hospital and Princess Margaret Hospital have begun to face the same problem.

At Tuen Mun Hospital, there were three days in January on which around 20 patients were stuck in the emergency unit, forced to wait about six hours before they could be admitted to medical wards.

The average daily occupancy rate of every medical department has been over 100 per cent this month, peaking at 120 per cent on January 5, when patients were forced to sleep on temporary beds.

"We're not asking patients to share a bed, but we're opening extra beds and some go to other departments," Dr Law Chun-bon, chief of medicine and geriatrics at Princess Margaret Hospital, said.

"Medical patients in particular end up occupying beds in other departments. This is a challenge to hospital operation as departments are affected and the staff have to get around to see patients."

Lee, of the authority, advised members of the public with mild illnesses to considering visiting clinics before emergency units.

Long holidays are also contributing to the patient surge, Lee added. "There are usually more patients after long holidays. I'm not sure whether it's a social phenomenon or disease-related," he said.