Public hospitals and ambulances will send critical patients to the nearest emergency facility instead of driving to a designated hospital as is now required.
Fire and hospital authorities agreed to make the change in response to an Ombudsman report yesterday that criticised delays in patients getting medical help - in one case up to 10 minutes - which could be fatal.
"Every single second matters when it comes to taking the patients to a hospital as quickly as possible," chief investigation officer Frank Li Wing-chi of the Office of the Ombudsman said.
The new special arrangement will apply to two types of patients - those who suffer cardiac arrest or serious respiratory distress.
The authorities pledged to put it into practice as soon as possible but did not lay out a time frame.
The Fire Services Department cautioned that given the medical skills of ambulance crew and equipment, "the department cannot be sure that patients in a critical condition can be quickly and accurately identified in varying work situations".
"If ambulancemen were allowed to make their own judgments on whether a patient is in a critical condition, it might leave members of the public confused and give rise to complaints."
Currently, the city is divided into 20 areas, each with a designated hospital that has been selected based on its capacity, equipment and other criteria.
The system does not define the travelling distance, time or traffic conditions as priorities in sending a patient for emergency aid. Ombudsman Alan Lai Nin, whose office investigated 22 complaints on the delays received by the department, said a designated hospital could be a long way from the pick-up point.
In its report, the office quoted Hospital Authority data that said in the past three years, only 4 per cent of patients who were taken to accident and emergency wards were deemed to be critical.
This addressed concerns that the redeployment in facilities might increase workloads at understaffed hospitals, it said.
"We believe [the new change] would not have a major impact on the workloads and intake capacities of any particular hospitals," the report said.
A spokesman for the authority said it would offer proper training and facilities and draw up "clear guidelines for frontline ambulancemen, including a definition of patients in critical condition".
The Fire Services Department Ambulancemen's Union chief executive Wat Ki-on said the first step was to update the electronic map installed on vehicles.
"We are now relying on the map to lead us to the designated hospital, but under the change, there should be a new navigation system to point the ambulance to the nearest emergency ward."
Lai urged both government bodies to hold regular reviews and provide ambulance crew with the necessary equipment, training and guidelines, "so that ultimately all patients in critical condition will be taken to the nearest hospital for emergency treatment as far as practicable".