What about us? Hong Kong's non-Covid-19 patients want public hospitals to allow regular check-ups again

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People in Hong Kong with chronic medical conditions are growing anxious at missing their regular check-ups and want the government to restart public services at hospitals designated to handle Covid-19 patients.

As the city's fifth wave of infections rose sharply in February, the Hospital Authority scaled back non-emergency and non-essential services to let public hospitals focus manpower and resources on those with Covid-19.

That meant patients with chronic conditions and serious illnesses had their regular check-ups and treatments deferred. Now they hope that with the fifth wave of infections easing, they will be allowed to see their doctors again.

Andy Tang*, a 59-year-old construction worker with advanced-stage skin cancer, had to postpone his check-up at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Yau Ma Tei in mid-March, after it was designated a coronavirus facility.

He was anxious when the staff there could not fix a date for his next appointment. "I was afraid my condition would worsen," he said.

When two weeks went by, he saw a private doctor who referred him to the private Saint Teresa's Hospital in Kowloon, where a course of chemotherapy treatments cost HK$290,000 (S$51,000).

Tang underwent one round of chemotherapy, using up most of his savings of about HK$40,000.

"It was like being robbed as charges in private hospitals are much higher than in public hospitals," Tang said.

He rejoined the queue for treatment at a public hospital, saying he did not think he could continue in the private sector.

The fifth wave of coronavirus cases left public hospitals swamped.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Hong Kong's fifth wave of infections began last December. When cases shot up, hitting as many as 50,000 a day in February, seven public hospitals were designated for Covid-19 patients.

Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Tin Shui Wai Hospital, North Lantau Hospital, Tung Wah Group of Hospitals Fung Yiu King Hospital, Ruttonjee Hospital, Haven of Hope Hospital and Alice Ho Miu Ling Nethersole Hospital offered 11,500 beds - around half the total in the public sector.

Under the special arrangements, appointments for non-emergency and routine clinical examinations were rescheduled. Only essential surgery, including for cancer, was allowed to go ahead, but elective surgery was postponed.

The specialist outpatient clinics of public hospitals also had to tell patients with stable conditions and mild illnesses to reschedule their appointments.

Tin Shui Wai Hospital was among those designated for Covid-19 patients. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Heart patient Wan Lai Ying, 65, whose monthly check-up at Canossa Hospital was deferred from March to June, decided to stretch out the medicines she still had at home.

"The rampaging virus added to my fears of going out to top up my medicines," she said, explaining why she missed two appointments to get her prescriptions.

Tim Pang Hung-cheong, a patient rights campaigner at the Society for Community Organisation, said: "When the government was only focusing on the epidemic, those who needed medical treatments were easily ignored."

He urged the government to allow regular public sector patients to be treated privately at the rate charged by public hospitals.

Tim Pang, a patient rights campaigner at the Society for Community Organisation. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Dr Jeffrey Pong Chiu Fai, convenor of the Patients and Healthcare Professionals Rights Association, said those with chronic conditions might feel lost without their regular check-ups and medicines.

He suggested the government restart services at the public hospitals gradually as the fifth wave of Covid-19 infections had begun easing this month.

"It will take longer for services in public hospitals to get back to normal as the deferred routine check-ups and treatments have been accumulating," he added.

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The Hospital Authority on Tuesday said it would allow more flexibility in manpower deployment and operational arrangements according to the evolving epidemic situation.

Hong Kong reported 429 cases on Sunday including 19 imported ones, a further drop from 523 infections recorded a day ago.

The tally of Covid-19 infections now stands at 1,201,860, with 9,249 related fatalities.

*Name changed at interviewee's request.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.