Medical errors must be taken seriously

Hong Kong has a world-class health care system but medical errors from time to time are a reminder that there is always room for improvement

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 August, 2017, 1:45am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 August, 2017, 1:45am

Hong Kong’s public health care system is one of the best in the world, although medical blunders from time to time are a reminder that there is still room for improvement. Increasingly, the system’s reputation has been put to the test by a series of high-profile blunders, the latest of which involves a patient who has suffered liver failure because of negligence in prescribing medication for her kidney condition. She is still fighting for her life following a second liver transplant.

Clearly, one mistake does not ruin the integrity of our public hospitals. While the number of complaints against public hospitals rose from 2,216 in 2011-2012 to more than 2,800 in 2015-16, the number of serious incidents actually dropped from 47 in 2013-14 to 35 in 2015-16. This represents a rate of about two cases per one million patient appointments, compared with 23 cases per one million patient appointments in the Australian state of Victoria, which has a similar reporting system to Hong Kong’s.

Medical blunders at Hong Kong hospitals point to overstretched public health care system

If the city’s hospitals were required to report expressions of gratitude from patients and families, the figures would probably outweigh the number of complaints. Unfortunately, perception can be easily altered by one or two high-profile cases. Reputation and confidence aside, there is also the financial cost. The compensation bills footed by taxpayers in out-of-court settlements has added up to more than HK$49 million over the past five years.

Even the most advanced medical system cannot avoid unfortunate incidents. But they can be minimised by due diligence and institutional safeguards. When mishaps happen, it is important that they are handled in a responsible manner. Apart from offering justice to the aggrieved, it is necessary to get to the root of the problem and fix it. This is not always the case, though. More often than not, constraints on resources and manpower are used as an excuse to dodge questions over negligence. Accountability and punishment are also not addressed as seriously as they should be.

While it may be unrealistic to expect zero mistakes in any health care system, every incident must be handled seriously.