In view of the overloaded emergency rooms at public hospitals this summer, the Hospital Authority (HA) has recently advised the general public suffering from flu-like symptoms to consider the use of Chinese medicine centres.

Unprecedented pressure on emergency rooms and hospital wards

As the summer influenza season continues to overwhelm Hong Kong, public hospitals are operating beyond capacity.

Over the weekend, the emergency department of public hospitals had to treat 5,562 patients, with an additional 831 patients requiring admissions. This may seemingly be the last straw as recent admissions have pushed the occupancy rate of inpatients medical wards in hospitals to 110% of their expected capacity. Some hospitals have even exceeded that figure – with the Prince of Wales Hospital (PWH) having 126% occupancy, the United Christian Hospital (UCH) at 121%, while the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) at 120%.

In the two months between 5 May and 23 July, the flu crisis has claimed the lives of 235 patients with another 22 patients passing away in the earlier weekend.

Alleviating pressure by shifting patients to Chinese medicine centres

On the other hand, Chinese medicine centres only had 27,300 visits since the flu season first began in April – with an average of just under 250 patients per day. This combined figure – from the 18 public Chinese medicine centres available in Hong Kong (jointly managed by the authority, local universities and non-governmental organization) – is just a 1.5% increase from the year earlier.

“We haven’t seen a massive influx of patients yet. We would monitor closely with the operating NGOs and adjust operating hours and manpower if necessary,” assured Dr Eric Tat-chi Ziea, chief of HA’s Chinese medicine department. “Our outpatient clinics should be able to absorb 20 – 30% more patient visits. There should not be a problem with extending service hours too,” he added.

In addition, several traditional Chinese medicine doctors proposed to volunteer by setting up temporary posts – by the emergency rooms – to help alleviate the workload of public hospitals. Nevertheless, the proposal is subject to HA’s approval since doctors at the government-run Chinese medicine centres are not hired by the HA; but by non-governmental institutions.

Chinese medicine under-utilised in Hong Kong

Within Hong Kong, Chinese medicine centres only provide 1.1% of primary care services with room to treat many more; especially in times of need such as the ongoing flu crisis. The only problem and apprehension within the public lies in the lack of scientific evidence that Chinese medicine is able to effectively treat influenza; especially with serious outcomes such as death occuring.

Nevertheless, Ziea has reassured that the traditional Chinese approach is able to relieve symptoms such as coughing and excess sputum production.

Professor Chen Wei, the chief of Chinese medicine service at Yan Chai Chinese Medicine Centre for Training and Research has attributed to the surge in flu cases this season to the abnormal weather patterns. “It is really hot and humid this summer, with an unusually high amount of rainfall,” Chen said. “Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners believe the cause of flu is related to the environment.”

Chen went on to add that unhealthy lifestyle and diets, like staying up late or excessive consumption of cold beverages, could predispose one to the flu. Chen recommends drinking tea brewed from chrysanthemum, mint and perillae folium together – three to five times weekly – as a measure to prevent oneself from contracting flu during this summer season. Moreover, the Chinese Medicine Department has also issued a list of healthy drinks and medicines for flu prevention on their official website. MIMS

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