Patients being transported in public ambulances may request to be taken to a private hospital under a new policy.
The change allows patients to make such requests if they are medically stable after initial assessments by a doctor. Alternatively, they can also provide a certificate issued by the Private Hospitals Association proving they are under treatment with a specific doctor.
But the policy U-turn has angered a union, which says resources will be misused. Previously, all patients were taken to the nearest public hospital emergency room regardless of their condition and urgency.
'Ambulances are not taxis. But under the new policy, we may need to take a Tuen Mun patient to a private hospital in Happy Valley,' said Wat Ki-on, chief secretary of the Fire Service Department Ambulancemen's Union.'Everyone can claim to be a doctor and we cannot prove it otherwise. This will certainly lead to arguments if patients insist in going to private hospitals.'
He said this might also lead to more abuse of the free service, adding patients who were stable enough to be admitted to private hospitals should call a taxi, and that unstable patients would receive more comprehensive and immediate treatment when taken to public emergency rooms. 'Even in private hospitals, non-urgent patients need to wait in line,' Wat said.
Union chairman Chan Shi-ki said the new policy would drain the resources of emergency services.
'When a North District patient needs to be taken to a nearby hospital, it only takes a few minutes. But if we need to take him to Hong Kong Island, it could take hours. This may delay more urgent cases,' he said.
The issue came to light in a Legislative Council meeting yesterday.
Undersecretary for food and health Professor Gabriel Leung said patients were encouraged to be transported to public emergency rooms, as they had all the facilities and manpower readily available.
There are seven private hospitals that offer round-the-clock outpatient services, but only one private hospital has an emergency department.
Pan-democrat lawmaker Andrew Cheng Kar-foo said patients should have a choice to be transported to private hospitals, as they could avoid the long wait in public emergency rooms, and could ease the burden of public medical care.
Lawmakers also questioned if ambulance services could be provided for Hongkongers being treated on the mainland and who wish to be transported back to the city.
Leung said feasibility studies were needed, but in the first quarter of this year the Hospital Authority had started exchanging patients' records with selected Shenzhen hospitals when patients were moved back to the city.
When asked if private ambulance services could be provided in the future, Leung said there were many technical issues that first needed to be resolved.