24 May 2019
Inaccurate media reports about certain cases add to the aggravations felt by front-line doctors and medical workers. Photo: Xinhua
Inaccurate media reports about certain cases add to the aggravations felt by front-line doctors and medical workers. Photo: Xinhua

Medical error or complication?

Having left the Hospital Authority six months ago, I have been a bit out of touch with the latest happenings in the health and medical sectors.

Still, I wasn’t completely out of the loop because I still read a lot about what is going on the field through WhatsApp and Facebook messages.

One case is about a 19-year-old female patient who was suffering from end-stage renal failure and required peritoneal dialysis.

She was admitted to the renal ward of Princess Margaret Hospital where she received a catheter insertion procedure for facilitating continuous dialysis, and later transferred to Queen Elizabeth Hospital for an operation to repair an artery.

A few days after the surgery, the patient was found to have suffered a right-side stroke.

Some media outlets quickly came up with headlines calling it a severe case of medical blunder.

The hospital tried to explain that it was a serious case of medical complications, but some lawmakers accused it of simply trying to evade responsibility.

Front-line doctors were in an uproar, and their union issued an open letter questioning why the lawmakers made such an accusation.

That night a journalist friend asked for my views. I explained that there are differences between a medical complication and a medical mistake, but things have been decontextualized, which was not very helpful in understanding the case.

From the WhatsApp and Facebook messages I have read, I could identify two key points.

First, there is a question as to whether local media had conducted some fact-checking before reporting the case and arriving at conclusions.

If the catheter insertion procedure caused an arterial puncture on the right side of the neck, it should have affected the left side of the patient’s body, instead of causing a right-side stroke.

Also, there was a gap of a few days between the procedure and the stroke.

Second, it seems some media outlets are keen on picking on public hospitals, while similar incidents in private hospitals might have been handled much more mildly.

This suggests that they are giving courtesy to the wealthy entrepreneurs behind those private medical corporations.

From my point of view, poor communications between doctors on the front line and the patients might also lead to misunderstanding and wrong conclusions.

If an unfortunate patient develops one complication after another, it would be inappropriate for the media to compare the case to winning a Mark Six draw to make the point that such a case is of low probability.

According to the lawmaker’s “logical reasoning”, the hurt that one feels is inflicted by another person. So if front-line medical practitioners display extreme emotions because of inaccurate reports about medical complications, then the media and some politicians should ask themselves if they have a clear conscience when making news reports and accusations.

That some media outlets and politicians vent their frustrations and rage on other people has become an endemic disease in Hong Kong.

Around a decade ago, it was said that Hong Kong’s health care system was being pushed to the brink of collapse.

Back then I noted in my column that it would be hard, if not impossible, to determine the boundary of a “collapse” as we continued to rise to greater challenges and face greater obstacles year after year.

But right now, I agree that our system will not be far from collapsing if indignation arises from both the front-line doctors and the patients simultaneously.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 27

Translation by John Chui

[Chinese version 中文版]

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