Hong Kong health care and hospitals

Hong Kong short of 200 nurses as hospitals grapple with deadly flu season

Nursing association accuses government of adding extra beds amid manpower shortage just to lower occupancy rates

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 January, 2018, 7:26pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 January, 2018, 10:49pm

Hong Kong’s public hospitals face a chronic shortage of nurses with 200 vacancies at present, the health minister has revealed as the city is caught in the thick of the winter flu season.

On Saturday, Secretary for Food and Health Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee said government hospitals had only been able to recruit 1,800 nurses to fill 2,000 positions.

The new figures were announced after the Association of Hong Kong Nursing Staff, the city’s biggest nurses’ group, ran a full-page newspaper advertisement this week. It urged the government to increase resources to tackle the manpower shortage at overburdened public hospitals.

“As we face a rapidly ageing society and the peak of the winter flu season, we understand that nurses are under a lot of pressure and [hospitals] are understaffed ... We hire nurses every year, but of course there will be some [who leave their jobs]. At present, we have been able to fill 80 per cent of our vacancies,” Chan said on the sidelines of a nursing conference.

She said the Hospital Authority had increased allowances for medical professionals willing to work extra hours or on a part-time basis. This was one of the measures to boost resources during the winter flu season.

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Since the winter flu season began earlier this month, there have been 88 cases of adults suffering from serious flu complications, leading to 46 deaths as of January 24.

Public hospitals have been stretched to maximum capacity, with a total of 6,313 people visiting emergency units and an overall bed occupancy rate of 107 per cent on Friday.

United Christian Hospital in Kwun Tong was the worst hit as its bed occupancy rate reached 120 per cent.

The nursing association blamed the authority for adding extra beds when there was not enough manpower.

Association chairman and health sector lawmaker Dr Joseph Lee Kok-long said the move was an attempt to lower the overall bed occupancy rate at a time when frontline staff had already reached “breaking point”.

“One nurse is handling up to 11 to 12 patients at a time ... [the Hospital Authority] should not tell people the situation is not that bad when they keep adding extra beds, but not frontline staff,” Lee said.

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According to international standards, the nurse-to-patient ratio should be 1 to 6, he said.

Lee added that new hires only served to fill existing vacancies, but did not address the need for extra hands on deck during the winter flu outbreak.

Chan, responding to the accusations of attempts to lower bed occupancy rates, said it was “not a numbers game”.

“We are adding hospital beds in accordance with the demands of the community. During a manpower shortage, new colleagues may not be able to get to work immediately even if additional resources are available. They are working hard to continue to recruit staff,” Chan said.

The turnover rate for nursing staff at public hospitals is at a five-year high of 5.7 per cent, which is identical to the rate for doctors, according to the Hospital Authority.

In 2013-14, the turnover rates for nurses and doctors were 4.7 per cent and 3.9 per cent respectively.