Hong Kong private hospitals asked to help as public wards overflow amid flu peak

Civil service doctors doing admin or research also urged to treat patients during non-office hours

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 July, 2017, 7:14pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 July, 2017, 11:14am

Private hospitals will be asked to take patients from public medical wards that are struggling to cope with occupancy rates of up to 124 per cent amid the peak summer flu season.

The Hospital Authority said doctors from the Department of Health engaged in admin or research would also be invited to provide treatment at public hospitals, where patients are having to wait up to eight hours to see a doctor and temporary beds are laid out in corridors.

These were among a series of measures announced by the authority on Monday with the peak flu season expected to last three more months.

Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Yau Ma Tei is under the most pressure, with patients who had undergone emergency treatment having to wait for up to 24 hours before being moved into beds on medical wards.

The announcement came a day after Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor made a surprise visit to the overwhelmed hospital and asked the authority to do something about the shortage of manpower and beds.

“This summer, the flu came earlier and is more severe than previous years,” Dr Wong Ka-hing, controller of the Centre for Health Protection, said on Monday

“Currently we don’t know whether the flu season has reached its peak. We believe the summer influenza will last for a period of time and do not rule out it taking two to three months to go down to a lower figure.”

Wong said the most common flu strain was the H3 virus, which is more usually more deadly, as indicated by the 157 deaths reported as of last week. The strain is typically more resilient to vaccines than other strains that have circulated in recent years.

Dr Cheung Wai-lun, director (cluster service) of the authority, said it would invite doctors from the department who are not currently engaged as medical practitioners to see patients at public hospitals during non-office hours.

The authority said it would continue to hire full-time and part-time doctors and nurses to solve the manpower crisis. It would also discuss with the Social and Welfare Department ways to facilitate the discharge of elderly patients to free beds for those in need.

Chueng refused to elaborate on plans for private hospitals to provide beds. “We are still in a discussion stage,” he said.

One private hospital said it would like to help but was already struggling with a 30 per cent surge in demand because of the flu.

Summer is usually the off-season which allows doctors to take some leave and rest, but this is not the case this year
Dr Clara Wu Wing-yee, Union Hospital

“We would really want to help the public hospitals if we have extra beds,” said Dr Clara Wu Wing-yee, associate chief hospital manager of Union Hospital in Sha Tin.

“Summer is usually the off-season which allows doctors to take some leave and rest, but this is not the case this year as the flu activity is quite unusual.”

The Union, which has 331 medical beds, also has a full house on its paediatrics ward. Wu said other beds were at a 90 per cent utilisation rate, which was unusually high, and not all of them were suitable for flu patients.

Private Hospital Association chairman Dr Anthony Lee Kai-yiu believed that private hospitals were willing to help but the logistics of transporting patients could be a problem.

“By the time the terms have been finalised, the crisis may be over,” Lee said, adding there had been no official contact with the authority yet.

Dr Chan Tsz-tai, vice-chairman of the Frontline Doctors’ Union, believed engaging private hospitals was more feasible than getting civil service doctors to help out.

“While [the health department doctors] have the medical knowledge, they might not be so familiar with the new way of doing things – it is like teaching new doctors,” he said.