The Health Department has been asked to step up controls on private hospitals after an audit report showed that written warnings for serious irregularities were not issued.
In many cases, private hospitals did not report serious incidents such as an unexpected death, injury or complication to the department within 24 hours or submit a full investigation report within four weeks, the Audit Commission found.
The watchdog also discovered that a private hospital began running a surgical centre last year before the department had given its approval.
These cases did not draw a written rebuke from the department, which issued six advisory or warning letters to six private hospitals last year.
Department inspectors visited the premises of the proposed centre in August last year and saw several patients in the waiting room. One patient was being seen by a doctor.
The department's Office for Registration of Healthcare Institutions - responsible for enforcing the Hospitals, Nursing Homes and Maternity Homes Registration Ordinance - informed the hospital management verbally that the centre should begin operation only after it was registered.
The commission also found that out of 98 serious incidents - so-called sentinel events - recorded from 2008 to last year, 55 were not reported within 24 hours. In 60 cases, an investigative report was not submitted within four weeks.
The Hospital Authority subjects public hospitals to a sentinel event reporting system to make medical incidents known to the public. However, the reporting system for private hospitals is voluntary and confidential, and results in no punishment. It is designed to generate constructive responses to be shared among health care workers.
The report asked Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man to consider aligning the system between both private and public hospitals as soon as possible.
The report also recommended that the department lay out in an advisory or warning letter any serious irregularity and set a timeframe for hospitals to rectify the problem.
It said the administration had agreed with the recommendations. Ko said the authorities would review the ordinance to be completed within a year.
The city has 11 registered private hospitals, after the Hong Kong Central Hospital closed down in early September.