My Take

Latest hospital blunder shows Scrooges are to blame for Hong Kong's ailing health system

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 July, 2015, 1:56am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 July, 2015, 2:38pm

It never rains but it pours. The Hospital Authority must be feeling like the weather these days. First there was a fungal outbreak at Queen Mary Hospital that could be linked to the deaths of two patients. Now nearly 10,000 patients may have been affected in a massive blunder at Tuen Mun Hospital, where medical personnel misread readings of liver enzymes from a machine.

We don't know exactly who or what caused the most recent well-publicised blunders at our public hospitals. But it's hard not to worry that chronic lack of investment and insufficient funding over the past decade is causing serious damage.

Declining service quality, longer waiting times and more and more exclusion charges for new drugs and treatments have become the norm in our public health sector. Overseas, they are the characteristics of a public sector running out of money. In Hong Kong, we are sitting on a massive reserve of trillions. So those shortfalls, as economist and former Central Policy Unit chief Leo Goodstadt has argued, are introduced by design.

It's because government policymakers and the business elites disdain anything that resembles "welfarism".

The results? In 2003, the Hospital Authority warned of funding shortfalls leading to longer waiting times and poorer services. In 2005, it warned treatments might be rationed to patients with urgent conditions, while quality might be compromised because of resource limitation.

In 2007, it said inadequate budgets had led to "limiting or refusing … new technologies and pharmaceuticals", and delays in the replacement of new equipment. The following year, it acknowledged queuing times for all specialties had lengthened since the 1997 handover, especially in surgeries.

In 2013, it estimated that the total number of hospital beds by 2021 would rise to regain the same level it reached in 2000.

Our government constantly frets about rising health costs from new technologies. But instead of increasing funding, it prefers to offload more patients, especially those with serious and chronic diseases, to the private sector.

Its recently proposed voluntary health insurance scheme is part of its efforts to maintain budgetary constraints while making us all pay more.

The state of our public health sector is the result of our officials' ideology of Ebenezer Scrooge rather than of necessity.