Disclosing medical blunders is ‘Hong Kong standard’ of doing things: head of HKU-Shenzhen Hospital champions transparency
- Professor Lo Chung-mau hopes how his hospital dealt with the death of a newborn baby could spark reforms in mainland medical system
- He says even officials had reservations about going public with case but it was responsibility of hospital to do so
The head of a Shenzhen hospital run by the University of Hong Kong has said the first fatal medical blunder under his leadership was dealt with transparently and in line with the “Hong Kong standard” when compared with other mainland hospitals.
Professor Lo Chung-mau said he hoped the handling of the incident by HKU-Shenzhen Hospital in Futian could set an example on how to deal with mishaps and eventually lead to reforms in the mainland’s medical system, where cover-ups and disputes were commonplace.
On December 16, the hospital released a statement about an incident in July in which a newborn baby died due to a brain injury and failure of the central nervous system.
It apologised for the incident and said those involved would be held responsible for the professional mistake, stressing the hospital was willing to tackle the matter and in talks with the parents over compensation.
“This way of handling a medical blunder is very different from other mainland hospitals where the system to report a medical blunder is not comprehensive and the culture is very different,” Lo, a liver transplant expert, said in an interview with the Post.
“In fact, many people disagreed with the decision to make it public, including mainland officials, who told us not to mention it again for fear of making things worse.
“But we insisted we had to handle it in a transparent manner, which is the Hong Kong standard. If we have made a mistake, we admit it, take responsibility and improve.”
In 2014, a blunder at the hospital involved a man in his 60s who died following a balloon angioplasty, a procedure used to widen clogged heart arteries. The Public Hospital Administration of Shenzhen Municipality only confirmed the incident following media inquiries. The hospital did not provide a statement to explain the incident or apologise.
In sharp contrast, Lo, who took the reins at the 2,000-bed teaching hospital in November 2016, said the recent blunder was handled differently.
After it took place, the hospital reported the incident to Shenzhen authorities, which normally do not publicly announce such incidents. It then held an internal investigation to find the cause and engaged an independent expert to probe the incident. Both blamed human error.
Upon receiving the expert’s report in December, the hospital went public with the matter and apologised to the parents, Lo said.
“It was a lapse in clinical judgment by the doctor, and the report concluded we have to accept 60 to 90 per cent responsibility for the incident,” Lo revealed.
Lo said the obstetrics and gynaecology specialist involved was an experienced mainland doctor with a good record, and who had a very good relationship with the parents to be. He was not on duty that day but helped with the delivery upon the parents’ request.
The couple had expressed a wish for a natural delivery, Lo said, which may have been one of the reasons the doctor failed to perform a caesarean section in time to prevent the fatal outcome.
Lo said the doctor faced a disciplinary hearing and was working in the outpatient clinic after being banned from conducting surgery. He was willing to accept any form of punishment.
While admitting disclosing a medical blunder would harm the hospital’s reputation, and could result in fewer patients in the short term, Lo believed it was the right thing to do.
“Nobody wants an incident to take place, but sadly it is hard to prevent it in any hospital, be it human error or other factors. So it really depends on how a hospital handles it after it happens. We hope to bring this Hong Kong culture to the mainland.”
There were other cultural challenges for the cross-border hospital too, Lo said. For example, it prohibited doctors from accepting red packets, and did not provide unnecessary treatment and medication routinely offered in other mainland clinics.
Also, it cracked down on scalping or middleman activities – a common practice on the mainland in which patients paid an agent to secure a hospital booking.
“These scalpers are vampires with no skills who make a living by drinking the blood of the patients. The money they make should be used on medical resources instead, so this practice must be stopped. It is not allowed in our hospital,” Lo said.
He is positive that such hospital management can gradually inspire change on the mainland.
The Shenzhen government built the hospital but the university runs it.
Since its opening in 2012, it has faced financial difficulties. It has owed the university at least HK$600 million for operations including payment to HKU experts.
But Lo said the self-financed hospital was more financially stable this year and started to pay part of the debt to the university, and hopefully would be clear by 2023.