PUBLIC HEALTH

Slow start to Hong Kong hospital flu bed plan

Hospital Authority wants to ‘buy the services’ of private hospitals as occupancy rates hit 114 per cent with peak summer flu season kicking in

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 July, 2017, 1:32pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 July, 2017, 10:20am

Only two private hospitals so far are looking to accept flu patients transferred from public hospitals under a government plan to tackle an influx of sick people that has overwhelmed Hong Kong’s subsidised health care services during the peak summer season.

According to a government source on Tuesday, the Hospital Authority was negotiating the option of using “low-charge beds” at the Hong Kong Adventist Hospital in Tsuen Wan and St Teresa’s Hospital in Kowloon City.

The two private hospitals have a total of 161 cheaper beds to offer, but that would cover only a tenth of the demand.

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“Negotiation with St Teresa’s is close to completion,” the source said. “We are not targeting all private hospitals.”

Demand has far outstripped supply at public medical wards. Given the 8,396 beds that they can offer in total, an extra 1,175 beds would be needed to meet the shortfall, taking, for example, Monday’s occupancy rate of 114 per cent.

At United Christian Hospital in Kwun Tong on Tuesday, the queue of people heading for the medical ward stretched out into the street.

At least 20 per cent of beds provided by Adventist and St Teresa’s should be set aside for permanent Hong Kong residents at rates similar to those charged by public hospitals, according to their existing land lease conditions.

Currently, St Teresa’s provides 101 low-charge beds and Adventist has 60, at prices ranging from HK$100 to HK$120 a day. Patients can occupy them for up to seven days.

However, patients aged below 18 years or those requiring emergency medical care are not eligible for the cheaper beds.

St Teresa’s said on Tuesday it was in preliminary discussions with the Hospital Authority, while the two Adventist hospitals in Tsuen Wan and on Hong Kong Island said they had not been contacted by the government yet.

“Adventist Hospital in Tsuen Wan is open to measures in supporting public hospitals and is glad to have further discussions,” Adventist said.

The details emerged as a senior health official said on Tuesday that the authority would pay for the transfer of patients from overcrowded public hospitals to private facilities.

The chief manager for cluster performance at the authority, Dr Ian Cheung, said they would “buy the services” of private hospitals as a long-term measure, but details were still to be discussed.

It is unimaginable that any private hospital will sublet a number of beds to the Hospital Authority
Anthony Lee Kai-yiu, Private Hospitals Association

“We hope we can have something more specific in one or two weeks,” he said. “The Centre for Health Protection has predicted that the flu situation will last two to three more months.”

However, Anthony Lee Kai-yiu, chairman of the Private Hospitals Association, ruled out an across-the-board commandeering of private beds for the flu crisis.

“It is unimaginable that any private hospital will sublet a number of beds to the Hospital Authority for it to run,” Lee said.

He suggested a more “practical or feasible” method for the authority would be to free up surgical or other beds by referring patients scheduled for operations to private hospitals. But he stressed that terms and logistics had to be negotiated first.

Dr Donald Li Kwok-tung, president-elect of the World Organisation of Family Doctors, said the pressure on public wards could be eased by enhancing the roles of frontline doctors at private clinics.

“General practitioners could provide early detection of flu and ease the worry of patients, thus fewer patients would need to head to hospitals,” Li said.

He also echoed a proposal floated by Dr Ho Pak-leung of the University of Hong Kong, under which “flu vouchers”of around HK$1,000 to HK1,500 should be given to high-risk patients to visit private doctors to handle respiratory problems.

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“Seventy per cent of primary care is provided by private doctors, so why not utilise them instead?” Li said.

He believed private doctors should have the capacity to handle 20 to 30 per cent more patients.

The transfer of patients from public to private hospitals was one of a raft of measures proposed by the Hospital Authority on Monday, a day after Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor made a surprise visit to a public hospital where she inquired about solutions to bed and manpower shortages.

Lam said on Tuesday the government was ready to help.