Heartfelt appeals and an apology on day HK health chiefs meet 100 doctors over deadly flu crisis

29-Jan-2019 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:00 AM Print This Post

Hong Kong health chiefs on Saturday offered an apology and assurances as more than 100 doctors made a painful appeal for extra manpower at public hospitals amid a deadly winter flu surge.

Health minister Sophia Chan Siu-chee and Hospital Authority chief executive Dr Leung Pak-yin faced angry and upset staff during a meeting at Queen Elisabeth Hospital in Yau Ma Tei, where doctors from across the city recounted stories of overwork and overcrowded wards.

Public hospitals have been under severe pressure since early January when the city entered the peak flu season, once again placing long-standing staff shortages under the spotlight.

The flu outbreaks even triggered a decision by the government to bring forward the Lunar New Year holiday at all of the city’s about 1,000 preschools. The move was aimed at curbing rampant spread of the flu and reducing pressure on children’s wards at both public and private hospitals.

On Saturday afternoon about 100 public sector doctors gathered in a theatre hall at Queen Elisabeth to voice their grievances in front of Chan and Leung.

Dr Cheng Kai-chi, an associate consultant at Kwong Wah Hospital’s department of surgery, said doctors were being morally blackmailed into overwork because officials knew they would not leave patients in need untreated.

“We are having to examine patients and even take off their clothes in corridors. They have no privacy,” Cheng said.

He slammed the government and the authority, which manages all public hospitals in the city, for what he said was their failure to retain experienced doctors.

“The first step is to retain manpower and treasure us experienced doctors,” he said. “They don’t treasure us. Instead they try to hire cheap labour.”

A doctor with the department of paediatrics at Queen Elisabeth Hospital, who identified herself only as Lee, said: “Even when my official working hours are over, I cannot go home. I have to stay behind to look after the patients overnight because no other doctors can do so. Then I go back to work the next morning.

“It breaks my heart to see the medical service for patients deteriorating. I hope the government and authority can exhaust all possible means to solve these problems.”

Wards had become increasingly crowded over the years and consultation time with patients had reduced, she added.

The heartfelt appeals came less than a week after more than 100 nurses protested and demanded action over the staffing shortages.

Hours before Saturday’s forum, Hospital Authority chair Dr John Leong Chi-yan took to a radio show to apologise to the public for failing to provide satisfactory services. But he said the problems could not be solved overnight nor by the authority alone.

The few hundred new doctors entering the sector this year from university would only replace older colleagues leaving for private practice, Leong said.

He pledged to review bonuses offered to specialists and other senior doctors for working extra shifts at weekends, and said the authority would make a bigger effort to retain experienced and retiring staff.

Minister Chan said she had received many constructive and practical suggestions during her 11/2-hour meeting with the doctors.

She urged the authority to prepare a short, medium and long-term manpower plan.

“If there is a need for extra resources, the government will definitely try our best to provide them so we can solve the problems, of manpower in particular.”

Chan also said she hoped more partnerships with private hospitals would help relieve the burden on public facilities.

Leung meanwhile said HK$500 million (US$63 million) in emergency funding to help hospitals deal with the flu surge had been received from the government in December distributed to all public hospitals.

“There is also more internal funding,” he said. “Even if the HK$500 million is running out, we can add HK$300 million, HK$400 million or even HK$500 million more. Frontline staff do not need to use resources tightly.”

Hong Kong’s shortage of medical practitioners has long been a problem. Critics attribute the shortfall to the high threshold set by the doctors’ regulatory body for foreign doctors to practise in the city.

The Society for Community Organisation, a local church-backed group helping the underprivileged, on Saturday said it hoped doctors’ unions would agree to import qualified overseas doctors to ease their workload.

The authority announced last Friday that a one-off 10 per cent increase in an allowance for its frontline staff had been endorsed and would come into effect on Monday as a way to encourage them to provide extra help over the winter flu season.

The new rate will be in effect for 12 weeks until the end of April.

As of Thursday, 86 people had died as a result of flu since Hong Kong entered the peak season at the turn of the new year. Some 71 of those people were older than 65. A total of 194 cases of flu have been classed as serious.

Occupancy rates at public hospital wards reached 105 per cent on Friday, meaning temporary beds have had to be laid out in corridors or between fixed ones. On the same day 5,917 people visited accident and emergency departments, and 17.7 per cent were admitted to wards.

In the 2018-19 financial year, the authority added 574 beds citywide and allocated HK$520 million for public hospitals to prepare for the increase in workload expected from flu patients.



Category: Hong Kong

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