Easing the overcrowding in Hong Kong’s public hospitals starts with an informed public
Padmore Amoah says the government should aim to increase people’s knowledge about health and disease prevention, to reduce demand for hospital beds in the overstretched public sector
Hong Kong’s public health system suffers from serious congestion. Occupancy rates in wards in the 16 public hospitals were between 110 and 130 per cent during peak flu season last year, for example. A lack of health personnel and a public that relies too much on state-led institutions have been identified as contributing factors.
One long-term solution is to empower the public to take charge of their health via preventive approaches. In her policy address, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor proposed to “reduce the demand for hospitalisation” by “encourag[ing] the public to take precautionary measures against diseases, [and] enhance their capability in self care and home care”.
Thus, the government would do well to consider as a mainstay of its strategy health literacy – that is, individuals’ and groups’ ability to access, understand, process, and apply health information to reach and maintain good health. By adopting health literacy, the government can take a more in-depth approach to public health and health care.
Studies in developed and developing countries show that good health literacy improves well-being and limits disease and death, irrespective of age, gender or ethnicity. Findings from a recent study I conducted among young people in Ghana support these assertions, and regional bodies like the European Union recently dedicated resources toward health literacy research. Hong Kong can learn from the European experience.
Hong Kong needs to be able to measure public health literacy, accounting for socio-economic and cultural characteristics; Taiwan and Vietnam have successfully adapted some Western models.
This would help pinpoint where more work is needed to enact practical solutions. Another approach would be to provide more education and advice about symptoms, and the causes of common ailments and how to prevent them, as well as when and where to seek proper medical attention. Such an approach would build knowledge in the population, potentially reducing the number of hospital stays.
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It is also important not to conflate Western and Chinese medicine. The government’s agenda to “proactively support the development of Chinese medicine”is vital, as the population relies on both types of practices. Based on research findings, targeting health literacy is a sure bet, at least in addressing preventable hospitalisations.
Padmore A. Amoah is research assistant professor in the Division of Graduate Studies, and Asia-Pacific Institute of Ageing Studies, at Lingnan University