The manager of an old-age home in Sha Tin warned yesterday that more community pharmacies were needed urgently to protect patients.
Giving his name only as Mr Leung, he said: "Most health workers in private old-age homes cannot read English, and some are even illiterate. How can they handle medicines single-handedly? They should only have a subordinate role in drug administration."
He added that the high turnover of staff, high rents and inflation, which were driving up costs, were making the issue of dispensing drugs more of a problem.
Bella Luk Po-chu, executive director of Helping Hand, a non-government organisation that runs a home for the elderly, said the labour shortage in the care industry and the heavy workload that staff are burdened with was to blame for many of the mistakes made when dispensing drugs.
"Many elderly residents suffer from hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, orthopaedic issues and dementia. More than 70 per cent of the 350 people in our old-age home take at least six types of medication every day.
"It would take one nurse more than three hours every day to prepare and verify the medicines, and another four hours to administer them to residents at different times of the day," Luk said.
Medication blunders were more common in hostels where patients often administer their own medication, she said. With only one social worker on hand, people were taking wrong doses or out-of-date medicine due to inadequate monitoring.
In 2010, Helping Hand realised that it could not guarantee the proper dispensing of medication, so it gave the job to Hong Kong's only community pharmacy - Active Care Pharmacy in Sha Tin. "The community pharmacy is a gatekeeper that spots errors at an early stage and gives timely advice," she said.
But contracting out pharmacy services is too expensive for many homes, Luk added. "The government should launch a pilot scheme to outsource this work through an open tender, to bring prices down," she said.