Pollsters have been shocked to discover that almost a tenth of Hongkongers avoid seeing a doctor because they are unable to afford to. While Hong Kong has a very good public health system, many people said they had avoided seeking treatment in the past because they were too poor.
“At first we assumed the number should be zero. We reckoned that no one should be deprived of medical care because of no money,” said Samuel Wong Yeung-shan, a lead author of the study and a professor of public health at Chinese University.
Of 2,236 people interviewed from April 2014 to August last year, 186 – or 8 per cent – said they had avoided going to the doctors and seeking treatment in the past year because they couldn’t afford it.
Those going without medical help were more likely to be women, students or working in manual labour. The study found no association between receiving government benefits and being unable to get treatment.
Wong said the long waiting time in the public sector and unclear pricing in the private sector could stop people getting help.
For instance, during winter flu season, patients in some public emergency wards had to wait more than 10 hours before they could be seen. Despite the long wait, the much cheaper public hospitals, which costs HK$100 for emergencies, could be one of the few affordable options for the poor. Private doctors cost at least double that, but the exact bill can be much higher once medication fees are added.
Wong suggested the private sector should be more transparent in prices and services to give patients greater confidence to use it over the public sector.
“Those who can afford may go to private, and those who can’t afford may [be left with] more quota to use public services,” he said. He added that extra resources should also be added to public health care.
A Medical Association spokesman said many doctors already display price lists inside their clinics. But it is difficult, he said, to give exact prices to those receiving treatment at private hospitals, which charge differently according to things like specific time slots, duration and unforeseeable complications care.
He said charges for private primary care doctors have been made more affordable, but are still affected by clinics’ rents.