On paper at least, Hong Kong’s got a great public health system. There’s a huge network of hospitals and clinics throughout the territory and if you’re carrying a Hong Kong ID card, costs are crazy low. However, my experiences with the system have been mostly very negative. It’s not the quality of the staff or the equipment; I believe it’s because they’re so incredibly over-worked that there is often no time to think properly or get things right. If you’ve ever wondered why a city with almost-free medical care also has a large network of expensive private doctors and hospitals, it could because those who can afford to do so prefer to pay and get taken care of properly rather than get shoddy care for free.
My girlfriend spent the day at Tseung Kwan O Hospital today. Tomorrow she’s getting minor surgery and they asked her to come in today for some preliminary tests. I dropped her off at the hospital at 8:30 this morning. ”Should I wait for you?” I asked. ”No, just go home, I’ll see you later.” By 6 PM tonight, all they’d done was take her blood pressure three times and then tell her to go home and come back the next day.
Three years ago I got really sick. I was running a fever that just wouldn’t go away and I had no appetite. I must have gone back and forth to the Tseung Kwan O Hospital at least 4 or 5 times. Each time I saw a different doctor, each time they took my blood pressure and temperature and told me I had the flu and gave me dozens of pills. And each time, I didn’t get better. Finally I said the hell with it and went to a private doctor who spent 15 minutes talking to me and looking at me before ordering some blood tests which showed that I had hepatitis. How many more times would I have had to go back to TKO before they would have sorted that out?
Actually my first bad encounter with a HK public hospital was back in 1995, my first year in HK. One of my regular hang-outs back then was a bar in Causeway Bay called China Jump. Located in a high floor in a shopping mall, this place would get really packed on weekend nights. They had a barber chair – you could sit back in that and have them pour booze straight down your throat or just lie on the bar and have the bartenders go at you.
One night, coming off the dance floor, I got pushed, my foot got stuck under a stair and my ankle got twisted. I could barely walk and tried to stumble my way back to our table. One of the bouncers spotted me – he didn’t offer help, he assumed I was completely wasted and tried to get me to leave the bar. ”I’m not drunk,” I shouted above the music, “I’m in pain. I just need to get back to my table and sit for awhile.”
I must have gone home around 1 or 2 AM that night. I woke up at 4 AM, completely in pain, my ankle swollen to more than twice its normal size. I tried to stand and couldn’t and realized there was nothing I could do except call for an ambulance. I dialed 999 and they came pretty quickly. They looked at my ankle and advised me to go to the hospital and I quite readily agreed. They strapped me to a stretcher – but the building I was living in had such a tiny elevator that they had to stick me in the elevator vertically, still strapped to the stretcher.
At the hospital, they looked at my ankle and pronounced it sprained but not broken. They told me to go home. I said to them, “Wait a minute, I can’t walk. Can I get a cane or a crutch or something?” Nope, sorry, that department doesn’t open until 9 AM, I’d have to come back. ”Can I get someone to bring me to a taxi in a wheelchair?” Nope, sorry. I had to hop for what seemed to be at least 100 yards to get out of the hospital and out to the street to try to get a taxi at 5:30 AM. At least the taxi could let me off in front of my building. Later, I had to hop back to the hospital again and got a pair of crutches and someone spent a minute with me showing me how to use them.
It wasn’t a matter of life or death, but it was extremely painful and just frustrating that this was their way of dealing with the situation. And it’s a memory that’s stayed with me – as has the memory of trying to walk around Causeway Bay on crutches – even in 1995 it was so busy there that people would bang into someone on crutches just because they were in a hurry and they’re important and you’re not (and it wasn’t like today when everyone walks into everyone else because everyone looks at their mobile phone when they’re walking now).
I still use the public hospitals from time to time. The doctors and nurses there are really nice. There’s always at least a 2 hour wait in the emergency room and the lone clinic in Sai Kung can get booked up days in advance. I just wonder why, in a city that has such massive reserves of cash, they can’t get the system to work a bit better.
UPDATE: So she stayed in the hospital from 8:30 AM to 6:30 PM and they checked her blood pressure 3 times and did a urine test once. When she finally asked what was going on, she was told that they were keeping her in the hospital over night. ”But the doctor yesterday said I didn’t need to stay over night.” ”Oh, it’s a different doctor today, we don’t know anything about what the other doctor said.” So they had to call him and check. So their systems are so poor that they can’t provide any continuity in treatment from one day to the next? Or was it just that yesterday’s doctor couldn’t be arsed to get everything into the system? We’ll never know.