Scarcely a month passes without some form of medical blunder occurring in Hong Kong. The latest mistake, involving 144 babies, is particularly alarming for a number of reasons. Infants have an immature digestive system, so the potential for grave damage to their health is that much greater than it would be in adults. If any of those concerned in this case had been suffering from a potentially serious complaint when they were given the mouthwash, the delay in treating them properly might have had disastrous consequences.
On previous occasions, mistakes have happened in hospitals. This time, dispensary procedures appear to be at fault, in addition to human error. Where medicines are concerned, the system has to be foolproof. Remedies for external use should be totally separate from preparations to be swallowed.
If the mix-up happened simply because the two mixtures were the same colour, it is hard to resist the conclusion that slapdash procedures are involved in storage and dispensing.
The Department of Health has launched an inquiry, and has not tried to cover up the mistake. The most urgent task facing the authorities is to convince the public that lessons have been learned, and will be acted upon.
Instead of waiting until further blunders occur, the authorities might consider conducting a survey of procedures right across the health service to check for potential trouble spots and correct them before more damage is done. Apart from the worries aroused among patients, the mistakes of recent months could have a bad effect on morale in the health service generally. It is important to ensure that doctors and ancillary workers do not feel under siege.
Visiting Hong Kong last month, the chief of the Medical Protection Society said doctors were becoming nervous because of mounting criticism - and a greater willingness to sue. A lawyer with the society blamed press coverage. Neither complaint is justified here. People rarely go to law over medical blunders, and the facts in newspapers speak for themselves.
Hong Kong has a good medical system, and human beings in any walk of life can make mistakes. But medical errors can be disastrous. That is why special care is needed. All the public asks for is a system which protects both patient and practitioner from avoidable error. They deserve nothing but the best in this respect.