Health and wellness

Consider all options to help in flu crisis

Enhancing public-private partnerships in health care and giving a bigger role to frontline doctors are among the suggestions worth looking into

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 July, 2017, 12:37am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 July, 2017, 12:37am

An unexpected surge in influenza cases has exposed a narrow margin of comfort in the health system’s response to a crisis. Summer is usually a time when medical staff take leave. Instead hospitals are offering incentives to staff on leave to return to work, among other extraordinary measures, as well as tapping the resources of private hospitals, starting with 48 low-cost beds at St Theresa’s Hospital from next Wednesday.

This raises questions about how severely a system already suffering from a chronic shortage of doctors is tested by demand peaks, and about the need for permanent contingency plans. The Hospital Authority (HA) has taken a step in the right direction by negotiating the option of using beds in two private hospitals to relieve the pressure on the heavily subsidised public system. A public-private partnership to deliver health services more efficiently should not stop there.

Public hospitals may be well accustomed to handling winter flu peaks that lay hundreds of thousands low. But a number of things set the current deadly flu crisis apart, such as serious breaches of 100 per cent public hospital occupation levels and more than 150 deaths in an unusually severe summer outbreak that has come earlier than usual. As a result the city’s new chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, made a high-profile visit to one of the worst-affected hospitals just two weeks after taking office.

Fewer than 10 doctors answer appeal for help from Hong Kong public hospitals struggling against flu surge

She called on the authority to take urgent measures to ease the pressure on hospitals. She was told that patients had to wait up to eight hours to see a doctor, and those admitted to wards had to wait a further 15 hours after initial treatment. It is now taking up to 12 hours to be admitted to wards. Lam said that “if [the manpower problem] has something to do with resources the government can promise its full support.” But she asked the authority to look at other solutions.

In that respect officials have asked doctors to work overtime, delayed elective surgery and non-urgent cases, diverted more flu patients to outpatient clinics, and reassigned departmental doctors to help in the clinics. As well as paying for the transfer of patients from overcrowded public hospitals to private facilities, the HA will “buy the services” of private hospitals as a long-term measure. Serious consideration should also be given to a suggestion from a family doctors’ spokesman to relieve pressure on wards by enhancing the role of frontline doctors in private clinics in the early diagnosis of flu.

Public hospitals will not catch up with demand during peak flu season any time soon. But it is good to hear the authority’s cluster services director, Cheung Wai-lun, say that now funding for hospital expansions has been approved, things can be expected to improve.