The current Omicron situation has already overwhelmed our public hospitals. As an obstetrician, I have experienced the impact this has had on my own patients and how this has led to serious, disproportionate physical and mental health implications for pregnant women, mothers and children, as well as other vulnerable groups.
Some public hospitals are no longer able to allow parents to stay with sick children due to a lack of available isolation rooms and other resources. Admission of coronavirus-positive children and new Covid-19 policies have further stretched resources and reduced parental access to their children.
We know that the trauma of illness for children is significantly exacerbated by being separated from parents and being taken away from a familiar environment.
Maternity departments in public hospitals are also under pressure dealing with an upsurge in coronavirus-positive women. Labour wards no longer allow patients to be accompanied when giving birth. We know that outcomes are worse if women are unable to have the support of their partners during delivery.
Added to this, in many hospitals, mothers are no longer allowed to visit their babies in neonatal intensive care units. Understandably, doctors and nurses struggling with increasing Covid-19 admissions and isolation procedures have less time to provide reassurance or emotional support.
Crucially, medical professionals estimate that fewer than 40 per cent of pregnant women in Hong Kong are vaccinated; this will add to the burden on maternity units as Omicron infections increase.
Recent research from Scotland indicates that unvaccinated pregnant women are seven times more likely to catch Covid-19 (77 per cent vs 11 per cent) and 10 times more likely to be admitted to intensive care (2.7 per cent vs 0.2 per cent). It is also five times more likely that babies of unvaccinated women with Covid-19 will die before delivery, during delivery or in the first month of life (2.2 per cent vs 0.4 per cent).
Low vaccination rates also add to the pressure on public hospitals because the number of complex and premature deliveries will inevitably increase as more coronavirus-positive, unvaccinated pregnant women are admitted.
Pregnant patients booked for delivery in private hospitals will, if they test positive for Covid-19 when they go into labour, be sent to an already overburdened government system, thereby losing family support and continuity of care.
It is essential when planning an effective Covid-19 response that we not only address the weaknesses in our health care system but play to our strengths.
Hong Kong not only has a world -class public hospital system, but also an incredibly well-resourced and staffed private health care sector which has very significant capacity.
Over the next few crucial weeks, private hospitals across Hong Kong should be deployed at scale to help provide urgent care to the large proportion of low-risk, Covid-19-negative uninsured patients who would otherwise be wholly reliant on increasingly overburdened public hospitals.
This would mitigate significantly the massive strain on these hospitals and also reduce the risk of Covid-19-negative patients contracting the virus in public hospitals. It would also reduce the need to separate families in a crisis and restore more compassionate and supportive policies for children and pregnant women.
A change in the policy of separating parents from their children in public hospitals is especially urgent if we are to avoid the danger of parents being reluctant to take their symptomatic children to public hospital emergency departments.
It should be in the interests of private hospitals to provide these services at cost. I’m sure that many private-sector doctors would want to help in this effort by providing their services at affordable government rates.
There is no time to be lost. It is imperative that as many Covid-19-negative patients as possible can be looked after in private-sector hospitals. If agreement on this is not reached now, valuable help from the private sector could be too little, too late.
While every country has managed the Covid-19 challenge differently, nearly all are agreed that the best results have been achieved by a combination of high vaccination rates and ensuring their health systems do not become overwhelmed.
Failure to harness the considerable resources of Hong Kong’s private medical sector to reduce the mounting pressure on public hospitals, and to limit serious mental and physical health outcomes for patients, would be an unnecessarily wasted opportunity.