Recently we had news that the accident and emergency (A&E) services units of some of the public hospitals in Hong Kong were getting swamped with patients.
Due to the rush, the average waiting time for A&E services at the Prince of Wales Hospital, for instance, is said to have soared to over eight hours. Elsewhere, the medical ward at Queen Elizabeth Hospital was reported to have been overcrowded 130 percent last week.
The winter flu season usually arrives in January, yet the recent surge in the number of patients seeking treatments in the city’s public hospitals suggests that the flu season could be arriving early this year.
In winter last year, Hong Kong witnessed a deadly and unusual flu outbreak that resulted in 402 deaths.
Given that, it is of the utmost importance for the authorities to learn the painful lesson and immediately make full-scale preparations for another major flu epidemic, so as not to repeat last year’s fatal mistakes.
On January 30 this year, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor hastily announced that the administration would divert HK$500 million in emergency funding into the Hospital Authority (HA) to combat the raging flu outbreaks in the city.
According to the latest information provided by the administration to the Legislative Council last week, of that extra HK$500 million, around HK$200 million has been spent on salaries for nurses.
In comparison, only HK$ 20 million was spent on salaries for allied health professionals and only HK$60 million for healthcare intermediaries, with the average waiting time for hospital admissions during the influenza period surging this year to stand at 126 minutes.
These numbers suggest that despite the allocation of extra resources, the public hospitals still faced an acute staff shortage and lack of resources during the last flu outbreaks.
Meanwhile, according to a recent survey carried out by the Association of Hong Kong Nursing Staff, nearly 70 percent of nurses believed that the extra resources haven’t been fully utilized. More than 40 percent said they weren’t even called upon to take part in the short-term measures devised by the HA in combating the flu pandemic in spring this year.
I hope that the government can drastically review the efficacy of the measures taken during the last flu season and carry out improvements accordingly so as to alleviate the serious shortage of frontline medical staff in the public hospitals.
I have learned that the HA has recently launched a website in a bid to recruit more qualified doctors and nurses in the private healthcare sector to work part-time in public hospitals.
This new initiative has, to some extent, answered my call for the administration to establish a regularized mechanism to recruit extra healthcare manpower to work in the public hospitals.
However, I feel compelled to stress that in order for the mechanism to fulfill its intended purposes, it must be both flexible and appealing, and be applied to all necessary departments across the public hospitals, so that nurses who are interested in working part-time for the HA can find the suitable positions more conveniently.
In the meantime, the government should make projections of the manpower requirements in the public hospitals during peak flu seasons beforehand and mount recruiting campaigns accordingly.
As far as flu prevention efforts are concerned, the administration said that since the launch of the Government Vaccination Program (GVP) 2018/19 last month, some 277,000 doses of seasonal flu vaccines have been administered to citizens, including 16,000 doses administered to students in 31 primary schools across the territory.
When it comes to the Vaccination Subsidy Scheme (VSS), so far 87,000 doses of flu vaccines have already been administered to eligible citizens in government clinics, and another 170,000 doses in private hospitals.
The figures represent an increase of 21 and 54 percent respectively from the same period of time last year.
A high vaccination coverage rate is the key to preventing massive flu outbreaks.
That said, the government should assess public demand for flu vaccines on a regular basis in order to make sure that there is always a sufficient stockpile of vaccines available to all Hong Kong citizens, particularly those belonging to high-risk groups.
Moreover, the government should enhance the current primary healthcare service in the city, and raise public awareness about the importance and ways of preventing flu infections. The campaign can be waged in close cooperation with district health centers, nurse clinics, schools, elderly health centers, nursing homes, etc.
In particular, the Department of Health should take extra care of children, seniors and patients suffering from chronic diseases in order to reduce their chances of hospital admissions during peak flu season and ease the burden on the public healthcare service.
Last but not least, the government should improve communication and coordination among its various departments, as well as with other countries and regions, on fighting flu outbreaks and provide the public with the most updated information on the matter in a timely manner.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov 8
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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