SCMP Saturday, December 9, 2000
It was a brave initiative to set up a pilot project with trial clinics offering private health care at hospitals, but it was doomed to failure from the start. When people are accustomed to getting something for nothing, they do not take kindly when they are asked to pay. Therefore, it is probably the right decision to close the clinics.
Better publicity and more convenient locations may have helped to swell patient numbers, but it was always unlikely the project would have succeeded. The figures speak for themselves: nine patients a day at the private outlets, against 150 in the three hours between 9pm and midnight in accident and emergency wards. Of those cases, 70 per cent on average are semi-urgent or non-urgent.
The reason large numbers of people prefer to sit for hours in hospital waiting rooms for treatment that is non-urgent and that they could receive at their local surgery in a fraction of the time, is because every medical service is on offer, from examinations to medication and an X-ray service.
Killing off the clinics simply means an even less popular solution must be considered. The Hospital Authority wants to see user fees imposed because staff cannot cope with the numbers of patients who abuse the service. The Government has to find ways to control the increasing cost of health care, and its advisers have agreed that charges should be imposed.
There are other ways to ease the burden on hospitals. One obvious route is to upgrade the standard of service available at government outpatient clinics, extending their opening hours into late evening and during public holidays. That would help to solve the problem for the less well off; but lack of money is not the main reason why the emergency wards are overstretched.
Fees of about $150 to $200 are within most people's reach. And those unable to pay will not be refused treatment. Legislators voted down a previous proposal to introduce charges in March because of a lack of community consensus. But that is merely delaying a decision that becomes more inevitable with each passing year.