Hospital bill scheme aims to curb dubious practices in Hong Kong’s private health care sector

Voluntary scheme will provide uniform bill estimates for 24 common surgical procedures and launch on Saturday

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 September, 2016, 10:55pm
UPDATED : Friday, 30 September, 2016, 11:37am

Hong Kong’s private hospitals have all agreed to start providing patients with bill estimates for 24 common surgical procedures ­before admission from tomorrow.

The voluntary pilot scheme was announced by the health minister yesterday to increase transparency in medical charges, but patients’ rights activists remained doubtful, concerned that it was not legally binding and there were no penalties for non-compliance.

They were also doubtful about relying solely on the goodwill of private doctors to ensure patients would be well informed about hospital fees.

“The budget estimation should not be seen as the final medical charges,” Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man said.

“Even it is not legally binding, it will benefit the patients as they will be able to know the price range to make informed choices and financial preparation.”

The hospitals would not be able to give patients a fixed final price before surgery because of too many variables, he added.

The government hopes the trial scheme will pave the way for legislation aimed at curbing ­dubious practices in the private health care sector, such as overcharging, lack of quality control, and a reluctance to handle public complaints or deal with medical blunders.

Ko said the scheme was being rolled out before the government submitted a bill to the Legislative Council in the first half of next year. He expected it would take a couple of years to review the regulations under the bill.

Starting tomorrow, the city’s 11 private hospitals will be sharing a common reference to estimate overall costs, including surgery, doctors’ fees, anaesthesia charges, hospital room rates and other ­expenses such as medication.

The Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital’s deputy medical superintendent, Dr Joseph Chan Woon-tong urged private doctors to cooperate with hospitals in ­providing fee estimates.

But a private surgeon expressed concern that hospitals would pass on the responsibility of estimating medical charges to doctors themselves.

“Many factors can affect the price, such as the duration of stay, room rent, duration of surgery, and the use of medicine,” Dr ­David Lam Tzit-yeung said.

Patients’ Rights Association spokesman Tim Pang Hung-cheong was sceptical about the scheme’s effectiveness in preventing private hospitals from overcharging patients, which he said was now a ­common practice.

“It is difficult to determine when a doctor underestimates a price quotation on purpose,” Pang said.

“Or it may be the case that the doctor exaggerates the price range right at the beginning so the patient will not complain about the high price.”

He called for a proper complaint system for the public to appeal if the final charges turned out to be much higher than the estimation.