Hong Kong auditor calls for more dental appointments at public clinics, overhaul of registration process

Hong Kong auditor calls for more dental appointments at public clinics, overhaul of registration process

Hong Kong’s auditor has urged health authorities to increase the number of dental appointments on offer to pre-Covid levels and make them more accessible to prevent patients from lining up for hours on end at public clinics.

At nine out of the 11 government dental clinics managed by the Department of Health, preliminary registration for public consultations starts at 12am each day that services are available and closes once the quota is reached.

Patients must visit the clinics in person to get registered, which allows them to get a spot during the daytime.

The Audit Commission noted on Wednesday that the daily number of total spaces at the 11 department-run clinics had decreased from 40,322 in the 2018-19 financial year to 20,337 in 2022-23, a drop of about 50 per cent.

But public demand rose over the same period, going from filling 92.3 per cent of all available quota spots to 99.2 per cent.

The commission said it had observed several patients queuing about seven hours early to wait for registration to start for the next day’s quota at four government clinics in December 2023 and February of this year.

Some were seen queuing at around 10pm at three clinics, suggesting they would still need to wait several more hours to secure a public consultation, it added.

“There had been public concerns on the [quota] distribution arrangements, in particular, the long queuing time and patients queuing up at clinics overnight in order to secure [spots],” the auditor said.

“[The Audit Commission] considers that there is merit for the Department of Health to review the [quota] distribution arrangement.”

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The department attributed the decrease in services since 2020 to the Covid-19 pandemic and a personnel shortage.

But the auditor said the volume of services should have increased to the pre-pandemic levels of about 40,000 spaces a year, calling on the department to boost the coverage of its emergency dental services at public clinics or by using a new service model.

Hong Kong is grappling with a long-standing shortage of dentists, with the government estimating the city would have a shortfall of 115 practitioners in 2030 and then 102 in 2035. The problem was expected to ease in 2040.

The lack of personnel has hit the public sector the hardest. The department recorded a 27 per cent vacancy rate as of January of this year.

The Legislative Council is currently scrutinising an amendment to the Dentists Registration Ordinance that would create new pathways to bring in dentists trained abroad.

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The commission also shared its findings on a separate Department of Health programme that involved NGOs offering free outreach dental services to elderly people in care homes and day centres.

It noted the 10 participating organisations failed to meet the overall target of reaching 43,000 users each year between 2020-21 and 2022-23.

While the programme was suspended intermittently during the pandemic, some NGOs had still fallen short of targets once services resumed, the auditor said.

The commission urged the department to “take further measures to enhance NGOs’ performance”, stressing a need to help participants struggling to achieve their targets.

The department was also told to step up promotion efforts to encourage more care homes and day centres to join the outreach services, and to consider collaborating with welfare authorities.

In response to the report, the department said it agreed with the recommendations.

Public dental services were among eight areas falling under scrutiny as part of the commission’s latest exercise.

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