Hong Kong’s string of medical blunders points to deeper illness in public health care
The recent medical blunders at various hospitals in the city (“North District Hospital to probe patient death after nurse forgets medication”, September 2; “Hospital apologises for patient’s death after student nurse performed unsupervised procedure”, August 28; “Elderly woman has Fallopian tubes removed after serious medical blunder”, July 29) have dealt a huge blow to public faith in the local medical system, and have left many people wondering why such errors continue to occur with such regularity.
Unlike in other professions, a lapse in judgment by medical professionals could mean the difference between life and death. People are quick to blame individual medical workers for such incidents, but medical blunders could well be just the symptom of two systemic problems in the sector.
The first relates to the mechanism for monitoring the quality of medical services. Are the existing guidelines clear and comprehensive enough to help frontline staff cope with unforeseen circumstances that may arise when treating patients? Are there enough human resources to ensure that the guidelines are followed strictly in all situations? Is a punishment system in place to deter malpractice, violation of guidelines and lax supervision? The Hospital Authority should be the first to answer these questions.
The second problem concerns the adequacy of financial resources allocated to the public health care system. Different stakeholders have been rallying for years for more funding for the public hospitals, so that they can meet the ever-increasing demand on their services owing to the city’s ageing population. However, public expenditure on health care still accounts for less than 5 per cent of our gross domestic product. Public hospitals are finding their resources stretched to the limit.
To be fair, given the medical manpower shortage, the public hospitals are already doing their best to provide decent patient services. However, overworked staff subjected to punishing work schedules could become prone to mistakes, and medical blunders are only an eventuality.
Apologising to relatives of patients and investigating who is at fault can do nothing to compensate the loss suffered by patients and their families. Overhauling our public health care system may be a bitter pill to swallow, but treating the symptoms but not the cause will only make problems fester.
Jason Tang, Tin Shui Wai