Health authorities must keep a closer eye on private hospitals

Alleged cases of potentially fatal infection suffered by newborns at the Matilda International Hospital highlight a lack of accountability and transparency

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 May, 2016, 11:10pm
UPDATED : Monday, 30 May, 2016, 11:10pm

When it comes to accountability, private hospitals enjoy a fairly charmed life compared with their public-sector counterparts, which have to comply with a code for prompt and transparent mandatory reporting to the Hospital Authority of serious medical incidents causing death or injury. Not only is compliance by private institutions voluntary, but the reporting system for them is confidential, so they need not fear the same naming and shaming even if other details of cases are made public.

An exception is when a patient or relative goes public with a complaint. An example is the case of Ayesha de Kretser, whose Facebook post about her newborn having to be treated for a serious bacterial infection after being discharged from Matilda International Hospital was reported in the South China Morning Post. Five more women came forward to say their babies were diagnosed with the same potentially fatal Staphylococcus aureus infection after being born at the same hospital over an eight-day period.

Hong Kong private hospital sent baby home with potentially fatal infection, couple claim

We cannot reach any conclusions or judgments about these cases unless the results of investigations are made public. The hospital says it is investigating the case of de Kretser’s daughter Lulu, and has asked two other mothers for consent to access their medical records with their own doctors.

It is the reported initial reaction of a hospital executive when de Kretser called to notify it of Lulu’s infection – flat-out denial of any bacterial infections at the hospital – that is cause for concern. Another mother said she called the Matilda and was told they “have no problem” and her baby got the infection at home. It has to be a worry that it appears the issue had to generate attention on social media and in the Post before the hospital acted.

Hong Kong health officials probe bacterial infections in babies born at private hospital

If in fact the hospital was more proactive before the story broke, it did not communicate its concern very well to the mothers or the media. It would be understandable if the parents of other babies born at the Matilda at about that time were worried. Transparency is very important in such circumstances, as the Hospital Authority acknowledged when it developed the reporting code in response to a rash of serious medical incidents in its hospitals a few years ago.

It is particularly important in autonomous institutions entrusted with responsibility for patient safety. The Health Department – the regulator – and the Hospital Authority need to keep a closer eye on the operations of private hospitals.