Diagnosed with stage-four liver cancer in 2009 and with surgery and chemotherapy no longer options, 79-year-old retiree Mr Xu was given six to nine months to live.
Friends told him Chinese medicine might offer a lifeline, and Xu (whose full name has been withheld for reasons of patient confidentiality) immediately paid a visit to the Chinese Medicine Clinic of Hong Kong Baptist University's (HKBU) School of Chinese Medicine.
In early 2010, he began a Chinese medicine treatment programme, which included at least weekly follow-ups and daily herbal prescription medicine. Xu found himself digging deep into his pockets to pay fees for the monthly treatment, which cost up to HK$3,000.
Fortunately, assistance soon arrived in the form of "privilege cards for the elderly", a subsidy programme by the Lions and HKBU Chinese Medicine Charity Foundation. Xu has saved more than HK$300 on each visit.
Since the programme's inception in September 2007, more than 2,000 elderly chronically ill, financially challenged patients in Hong Kong have benefited. The foundation has issued more than 2,300 privilege cards and 13,489 coupons, each with a face value of HK$100, according to the director of the foundation, Paulman Tse Yim-pui.
The foundation was jointly set up by HKBU and the Lions Clubs International of Hong Kong and Macau, and is funded through donations. Last month, the foundation received HK$200,000 from the Lions Club of Tuen Mun and HK$50,000 from Dr Lam Hoi-ham, former district governor of the Lions Club of Hong Kong and Macau - meaning more elderly patients can continue to benefit from the subsidy programme.
The cards and coupons enable programme participants to enjoy subsidised or even free consultations, prescriptions, acupuncture, Chinese massage and other forms of therapy prescribed for well-being at eight HKBU Chinese Medicine Clinics.
Eligibility for the programme requires Hong Kong permanent resident status for individuals over the age of 60. Participants must also meet the financial qualifications set by Hong Kong's Comprehensive Social Security Assistance Scheme. Applicants need to have a monthly income of less than HK$8,740 or total assets of less than HK$406,000. Chronically ill patients under the age of 60 may also apply.
Last month, Lam spoke of the challenges an ageing population poses to Hong Kong, where 70 per cent of about 1.5 million people over the age of 60 suffer from a chronic disease such as renal illness, cancer or diabetes.
According to last year's census, about 13.5 per cent of Hong Kong's population, or more than 941,000 people, are 65 or older. The median age rose from 36.7 in 2001 to 41.7 last year.
"As a charitable organisation which focuses on improving social welfare, the Lions Club wanted to find a way to help the elderly who are living without any medical care," says Lam. "Helping the elderly through this programme is one of the most important projects we are doing today."
Lions Clubs International, a secular service organisation with more than 45,500 clubs and more than 1.3 million members in 205 countries, was founded in 1917. It performs volunteer work for many different community projects, including caring for the environment, feeding the hungry and aiding the elderly and the disabled. The first Hong Kong Lions Club was established in 1955; today there are 68 active Lions Clubs in Hong Kong.
When asked why the Lions Club chose traditional Chinese medicine over Western medicine, Lam says easy access and treatment costs are important factors. "Firstly, Hong Kong's elderly depend on Chinese medicine along with Western medicine to help manage side effects and symptoms," he says. "Chinese medicine is affordable and we can see it offers benefits to the ageing population."
Chinese medicine has recently gained recognition for improving immunity and tolerability of chemotherapy for cancers in many hospital communities worldwide, which has prompted a newer understanding and acceptance of the traditional practice.
Professor Rick Wong Wai-kwok, HKBU vice-president, also stresses how traditional Chinese medicine is a very popular option for disease management in the local community, especially among the elderly and for those who are chronically ill. Experts in the field believe that when the Hong Kong Chinese Medicine Ordinance took effect in 2000, ensuring all Hong Kong Chinese medicine practitioners are registered and licensed, patient confidence levels and demand increased.
Professor Bian Zhaoxiang, director of the clinical division, School of Chinese Medicine at HKBU, sees many elderly people who are coping with chronic illness. Fortunately, Chinese medicine has incorporated chronic disease management into a speciality system, making it more accessible and modern for these patients.
Today, a patient suffering from renal disease can consult a kidney specialist, and those managing high blood sugar levels can see a diabetes specialist at one of HKBU's clinics. "Based on the statistics, most elderly patients today suffer primarily from metabolic diseases, such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease," says Bian.
Xu has defied his death sentence. With the past two years of Chinese medicine treatment, his tumour has shrunk and his health has greatly improved. He continues to take herbal medicine every day and visits the clinic every two weeks.
For more information or to donate, contact Ms Lee from Baptist University at 3411 2077