The Hospital Authority announced yesterday that it will spend at least HK$14 million a year on subsidies for chronic-disease patients to see private doctors in an effort to ease the burden on the overloaded public health system.
Beginning in the second half of this year, more than 6,000 patients in three districts with diabetes, high blood pressure and excessive blood fats will receive a maximum HK$2,330 a year for up to 10 consultations.
The recipients will represent 10 per cent of about 60,000 eligible patients in Kwun Tong, Wong Tai Sin and Tuen Mun suffering from the three conditions.
To visit private doctors the patients will pay only the HK$45 they now pay at public hospitals with the rest of the cost, about HK$233, being borne by the Hospital Authority.
The authority's director of cluster services, Dr Cheung Wai-lun, said a review would be held after the first year to determine whether the scheme should be extended to other districts and more diseases.
"We will send out invitation letters to patients shortly," Cheung said. "Since we have not set a quota, we will still fund eligible patients if the number exceeds 6,000."
The pilot programme should also save the authority some money in the long run as each visit to a public hospital's general clinic costs the authority an average of HK$380 including drugs after the HK$45-a-visit fee paid by patients.
Cheung said he hoped the project could provide more choice for patients and improve follow-up treatment while releasing public resources for other services.
Dr Ma Ching-hing, whose private clinic is in Wong Tai Sin, said doctors would not expect to make a big profit out the scheme, but they could help to share the burden by conducting regular check-ups and follow-ups for chronic patients.
Cheung said there were 360 private doctors in the target districts and the authority would ask them soon to join the scheme.
The doctors will prescribe patients either drugs from the clinic or drugs they buy from the authority's suppliers at specified prices.
They will be able to submit claims for payment through an existing electronic system after seeing an eligible patient.
Hong Kong Alliance of Patients' Organisations chairman Yuen Siu-lam said being able to choose private clinics would often save the patients transport and waiting times.
Patients in the government allowance and old age allowance schemes will enjoy the same fee waivers as they now receive in public hospitals, Cheung said.
The Hospital Authority has said the city's public hospitals are short 300 doctors and the situation will not begin to ease until after 2015 when more trainee doctors graduate.