More than 21,000 patients had waited three years before receiving specialist treatment at the city's overburdened and understaffed public hospitals last year, with more than 1,000 waiting even longer.
But a Hospital Authority report submitted to the Legislative Council shows that the number of patients queueing for specialist care actually dropped from 2012, despite 680,000 more patients seeking care.
Dr Alexander Chiu, the authority’s chief manager for quality and standards, said there was a “serious irregularity” in queuing times at different hospitals, which he said “should be better managed”.
“To help reduce the differences, the authority has introduced a cross-cluster referral mechanism,” Chiu told the South China Morning Post.
“It gives suitable patients the option of attending clinics in other clusters that have shorter waiting times.”
The report showed that last year 21,076 patients had waited three years before they were able to see a specialist.
This was a decline of 18 per cent from 2012, while 1,016 waited more than three years, down 47 per cent.
In 2012, the numbers were 25,795 and 1,924.
Most of the longest waits were concentrated in two districts, New Territories East and Kowloon East.
Patients requiring specialist ophthalmology care in these two areas faced a wait of at least three years, while the wait at the same department elsewhere was only one year.
Chiu said there was a slight improvement in waiting times but it was undesirable that so many patients had to wait for so long.
He said the massive demand for specialist treatment was the major reason for the queuing problem.
The 680,000 new patients lining up for specialist care last year meant that the number had grown almost 10 per cent in the past three years, Chiu said.
Meanwhile, the increase in capacity was trailing way behind.
Many patients attending specialist clinics had minor conditions that could be treated by family doctors, said Chiu.
He cited an authority audit that revealed about 10 per cent of new cases for orthopaedic services suffered from minor lower back pain.
Some new emerging sub-specialisations, such as paediatric dermatology and treatment for infertility, were also seeing long queues.
“A medical manpower shortage remains a crucial factor that limits service capacity,” Chiu said, adding that the shortage would not be eased until next year, when more doctors would be graduating.
But he said the shortage was expected to get worse over time with a growing population and more elderly people to treat.
In response to the demand, the authority has set up clinics involving family medicine and major specialties, which allow patients to be assessed earlier and provide timely specialist care for patients most in need.
About HK$50 million had been allocated to improve the waiting times at specialist clinics in 2014-15, Chiu said.