Calls to fix Hong Kong’s free dental service, where patients wait 10 hours just to register to see a dentist

The registration system at Hong Kong’s government dental clinics came under fire recently because of the long waiting time patients endured, with calls to ease their plight.

Having been through the tedious process several times over the past two years, Lau said he was used to it.

“I’ve been here more than 10 times to have my teeth removed,” he told the Post. “I have no income. The fee in private clinics is HK$800 [US$102] to HK$2,000 per tooth. I cannot afford that.”

Patients must return multiple times because of a clinic rule stated on its signboard: “One tooth per visit; limited to pain relief and extraction.”

The Tsuen Wan clinic opens twice a week, taking in a maximum of 42 patients each time. It is one of three dental clinics serving the New Territories West, which has a population of nearly 2 million.

Patients wait for dental services at the Tsuen Wan Dental Clinic. The number of dental appointments at the city’s 11 public clinics fell by about 50 per cent between the 2018-19 and 2022-23 financial years. Photo: Yik Yeung-man

The Kennedy Town Community Complex Dental Clinic, the only government-run one on Hong Kong Island that provides emergency dental services to the public, also opens twice a week and has the same quota.

Waiting in line there was a woman surnamed Chan, 81, who said she needed to remove nine decayed teeth, and this visit was to remove the fourth.

“The dentist told me extracting more than one tooth per visit would be unfair to others. This means I have to return repeatedly,” she said. “I still have to remove about four or five more teeth, and this would cost me HK$10,000 if I went to a private dentist.”

She said she did not mind the multiple visits and long waiting times because the treatment was free.

“You can go to yum cha many times with HK$10,000,” she said, referring to her favourite dim sum meal. “You know we older people would rather spend our money on food.”

The midnight registration system, introduced in 2022, was criticised last month by the Audit Commission for forcing patients to wait for hours.
In response, the Department of Health allowed patients to preregister at 8pm instead of midnight.

Though Lau and Chan appreciated that tweak, they expected that the extended waiting time would persist as long as the daily quota remained unchanged.

The commission also criticised the fact that the number of dental appointments at the city’s 11 public clinics fell by about 50 per cent from 40,322 in the 2018-19 financial year to 20,337 in 2022-23.

The department blamed the Covid-19 pandemic and said staffing was not back to pre-pandemic levels.

Officials later said a new digital ticketing system would be introduced in July, with stations set up to help elderly patients.

As for the long waiting time, Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau said: “It is a utopian idea that all medical services will be available right away without the need to queue.”

Hong Kong had about 2,876 registered dentists as of December last year, or only one dentist for almost 3,000 people.

The government has projected a shortfall of 115 dentists in 2030 and that the situation would persist until 2040.

The government also has plans to subsidise elderly residents who visit dentists across the border. It will expand the use of the elderly healthcare voucher scheme to seven more hospitals and dental clinics in mainland Chinese cities from the third quarter of this year at the earliest.

It is also looking at ways to admit non-local dentists, support more locals to train as dental hygienists and therapists and provide funding to more NGOs offering free outreach services.

A painter surnamed Ng, 59, who was in the Tsuen Wan clinic queue to register on Thursday, said if he could not see the dentist the next day, he would go to Shenzhen for treatment.

“Extracting a tooth can cost HK$200 to HK$300 in Shenzhen … I checked six private clinics in Hong Kong, the cheapest charged HK$1,650 excluding X-ray fees,” he said.

“There is a Chinese saying, ‘A toothache is worse than a serious illness’. I’m poor. I have no choice but to endure this.”

Tim Pang Hung-cheong, a patients’ rights advocate from the Society for Community Organisation, said some of the planned changes provided only “a temporary answer” to the specific criticism of the night time queues.

“The root problem is the manpower crunch. The array of measures planned by the authorities won’t yield results in a year or two,” he said.

He felt there was more the government could do to ease the plight of patients.

Referring to what 83-year-old patient Lau had gone through, he asked: “When Lau had his first tooth extracted, could the dentist have scheduled appointments for the other 10 decaying teeth, sparing him from joining the queue 10 times?”

Noting that older Hongkongers lacked awareness of caring for their teeth, he added: “If the government had stepped up efforts to educate the elderly about dental hygiene, would Lau have needed to have all his teeth removed?”


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