Published on: 22 January 2014 by Michael Lamb
Public hospitals in Hong Kong are having problems dealing with increased patient demand due to a surge in cases of seasonal flu, according to an article published by the South China Morning Post.*
In the latest of an ongoing series of reports highlighting myriad problems at Hong Kong’s government run public healthcare institutions it has emerged that more than 600 non-emergency operations may be delayed in the next few weeks as the Hospital Authority works to deal with a swell in the total number of patients resulting from a particularly virulent strain of seasonal flu.
On the week of January 15th 2014 an estimated 20 per cent of all patients admitted to emergency departments at the city’s public hospital on an inpatient basis were suffering from the flu, with an average 6000 people visiting emergency units each day since December 20th 2013. Emergency department admittance at Hong Kong hospitals peaked on January 6th with 7,050 patients being treated – the highest single day intake since 2012.
Because of the inflated number of patients seeking emergency treatment due to the flu many hospitals, including Tuen Mun Hospital, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, and Prince of Wales Hospital are running over capacity with occupancy rates averaging over 100 per cent since December 20th 2013. At Tuen Mun Hospital this has meant that patients have had to wait up to 6 hours before they were able to be admitted to a ward.
On January 5th the average daily occupancy rate at the city’s Hospitals was 120 per cent, which meant that patients requiring treatment had to sleep on temporary beds outside of the medical wards. Whilst hospitals are not yet asking patients to share beds at their facilities there has been a move to place temporary cots where space is available, and patients are increasingly being moved to alternate departments where beds are free.
Director of Cluster Services at the Hong Kong Hospital Authority, Dr. Lee Koon-hung, has said that the weather and the unusually crowded holiday period this year were two of the primary causes for the recent overcrowding.
“There are usually more patients after long holidays. I’m not sure whether it’s a social phenomenon or disease related,” he stated before elaborating “we extend our apologies to patients enduring long waits in the accident and emergency departments and crowded environments in the medical wards… If the cold weather continues into the lunar new year, we expect the numbers [of patients] to rise again.”
Medical professionals are urging individuals who feel sick to visit outpatient clinics prior to seeking admittance to emergency departments at public hospitals which are extremely stressed at the moment – especially if the illness the patient is suffering is mild.
However, it is increasingly becoming clear that the healthcare system in Hong Kong is ill equipped to deal with the multitude of issues it faces – from an ageing population, anchor babies, and PRC demand, to overcrowding, high staff turnover and a large number of less experienced doctors are all contributing to the increasing strain being felt by the public healthcare sector.
While a number of proposals have been made over the last decade to help alleviate the burden on the healthcare system in Hong Kong, no single proposal has been accepted as a comprehensive solution – the most recent idea for tax credits in exchange for health insurance purchases identifies the root causes of the problem but leaves a number of holes exposed within the framework of the legislation which would only exacerbate the strain being felt by hospitals.
For residents of Hong Kong who are concerned about receiving timely access to quality medical treatment the purchase of a private health insurance which enables the individual to receive coverage for care at leading private hospitals in the city may be considered.
With the increasing problems being seen at public hospitals, including the extensive waiting times needed to see certain specialists (96 weeks in the case of an Ear Nose and Throat specialist), and the fact that patients are now having to sleep in temporary beds away from the wards where they are being treated many residents may turn to private healthcare providers as a mechanism to receive more timely treatment.
However, despite the fact that private hospitals in Hong Kong have much lower patient numbers than their public system counterparts, and the fact that private hospitals boast expert doctors and surgeons with low levels of junior staff, these facilities are highly expensive and often cannot be afforded without a comprehensive Hong Kong health insurance policy to protect a patient.
This may also be part of the problem currently facing the public healthcare system in Hong Kong – the costs of receiving treatment at a private hospital, like the Adventist, Sanatorium, or Matilda, are simply too high for many ordinary residents to afford – and without affordable local health insurance and international health insurance options the demand for services at public healthcare institutions will remain extremely high.