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Hong Kong health care and hospitals

Hong Kong hospital must find answer in case of missing brain

The latest incident involving the organ of an elderly woman is not only disrespectful to the deceased, but also says something about the way medical samples are handled

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 April, 2018, 4:08am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 April, 2018, 4:08am

Medical incidents are arguably unavoidable even in the most advanced health care systems. Hong Kong is no exception. From leaving surgical equipment inside patients’ bodies to losing tissue samples for pathological examination, the city has an embarrassingly long list of blunders that defies common sense. Adding to the shame is another jaw-dropping case – a brain preserved for a coroner’s inquest has gone missing

Embarrassed managers at North District Hospital are trying to find out what happened to the organ that was removed from a 71-year-old woman suffering from a mental disorder. She died of unknown causes three days after being admitted to the hospital in late February and a postmortem examination was carried out.  

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According to the hospital, her brain was stored at the sample room inside the mortuary, but staff could not find it when an examination was due last Wednesday. After searching without success, it alerted the pathology department on Thursday, with the public being told the following day. 

The hospital has rightly apologised for the incident. This is not just disrespectful to the deceased. It says something about the way medical samples are handled, even though hospital managers announced there was no evidence of human error. 

Exactly what went wrong is now being investigated by police. This is not the first time the hospital has lost patients’ samples for medical examination. Last September, tissue from a woman’s breast went missing, again prompting management to report the matter to police. The repeated losses suggest action may need to be taken.  

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Establishing what went wrong and punishing those responsible is the first step. This is not just for the sake of accountability and redress. More importantly, the authority needs to identify inadequacies and put better measures in place. 

It may be unrealistic to expect our health care system to be error-free. But the Hospital Authority is expected to minimise mishaps with institutional safeguards and due diligence. It must investigate thoroughly and learn from the latest case.