The slow-moving fans, pale colours and cool spaciousness of Granville House at the Matilda Hospital are calming for just about anyone who stops by. And the selection of literature stacked against the walls - on anything from coronary heart disease to improving personal relationships - may ordinarily find appeal among the general population. So imagine the benefits to someone who comes to Healthwise to learn more about a life-threatening disease a loved one has, or needs questions answered about a specific medical ailment. The difference between a couple of quiet hours here and trying to get information from a busy doctor in a cold clinic is obvious. Healthwise, a health resource and community centre, is in a space formerly occupied by a dining and sitting room for senior sisters of the hospital. It was officially opened on September 15 after fund-raising efforts by a group of doctors, philanthropists and others active in the community. One member of the group, Dr Lucy Lord, had the genesis of the idea during a trip to England, where she noticed doctors' offices were increasingly investing resources in creating small libraries - 'entire walls of information', said Dr Lord - for their patients. 'Here, patients pay a fortune in private care but what they get in terms of information and background is not as good as even the NHS [Britain's National Health Service],' said Dr Lord. 'I began to feel that in terms of information, Hong Kong has been isolated and has missed out.' The opening of Healthwise is especially timely in the light of recent revelations of embarrassing mistakes made by doctors and nursing staff at hospitals. 'When things go wrong, patients' families are not so much seeking redress as an understanding of what happened and why. And they can't understand it unless the information is presented to them in a lay language,' said Dr Lord. A series of medical blunders recently plagued hospitals. At Queen Mary Hospital, warning notices for gross misconduct were issued to two doctors over operations in which they severed the reproductive organs of a woman and a four-year-old girl while trying to remove their appendixes. An intern was found to have failed to dilute potassium chloride before injecting a patient; an operating theatre attendant accidentally pumped air into a woman's bloodstream instead of her inflatable pillow; and a car crash victim died after receiving four packets of the wrong blood type. Meanwhile, at Prince of Wales Hospital, a student nurse mistakenly connected a nutrition pack to a tube in a patient's neck, sending milk into his veins instead of his stomach. Matilda Hospital itself suffered the ignominy of having its reputation damaged by joining with a New Zealand doctor whose credentials for plastic surgery were seriously questioned. But part of the problem faced by information providers is a general apathy towards trying to obtain insight into medical diagnoses: studies have indicated that most patients only take in about 10 to 20 per cent of the information given to them by their doctors. Most people choose not to find out too much about their condition, implicitly handing over control to their practitioners. Much of this self-assigned ignorance stems from the perceived complexity of medicine and the thousands of variables attached to any condition; if 30 years ago there was only one treatment for heart disease there are now thousands. Very often, even doctors are not completely abreast of the latest scientific advancement in a particular field. But Dr Lord believes that the greater the knowledge of an ailment, the higher the chance of recovery; intellectual support is as important as taking the right medication. 'Everybody needs to be in control of their own lives and they can only do that if they are well informed,' she said. Healthwise was set up with the idea of becoming a freely available adjunct to clinical care and not a replacement for it. A bilingual library stocks books, pamphlets and journals on broadly defined medical issues and local support groups, although coverage is patchy: women's health - in space underwritten by the American Women's Association - is well covered, but more is needed on lung illnesses, childrens' health and general surgery. In a separate room, computers provide free access to a data base that contains the latest updates on therapies and drugs. The founders are also hoping to eventually obtain a specialist on-line service, Medline, which will give browsers detailed information published in leading medical journals. And, according to general manager Nola Holmes, whose background is in health education, if Healthwise does not have an answer to a question on hand, at least she knows who to ask. But Ms Holmes stressed that Healthwise acted in an informative and not an advisory capacity, giving people the knowledge they needed to make choices regarding their personal health, including any information on how certain drugs might affect them. It did not provide doctor referrals or give medical advice. The establishment of Healthwise represents a significant step forward for a society which reportedly has one of the highest rates of 'doctor-shopping' in the world, and whose incumbents are inclined to take pills handed out in little plastic bags by their practitioners without asking any questions. This perhaps represents the biggest challenge. Dr Lord recognises that it will take some time for the work of Healthwise, from its lofty - albeit independent - venue at the Matilda, to be utilised by the grassroots. 'We find Westerners and Western-educated Chinese have a higher need to understand their problem,' conceded Dr Lord. 'It's more difficult to go in at the grassroots than to allow what we are doing to have a trickle-down effect, first through the international community and then through the well-educated Chinese middle classes. In the long-term, Dr Lord hopes that private practitioners will be encouraged to provide a similar kind of service. 'We hope this will be a catalyst, that doctors will realise the real need for this and that people have the right to information.' But more importantly, Dr Lord hopes that Healthwise will serve the greater medical community by alerting doctors and nurses to the fact that patients are familiar with their conditions. And perhaps the more articulate and knowledgeable the patient, the more careful and conscientious the doctor.