Maintaining Standards

Bacteria-laden linen being returned to our top teaching hospital from the laundry, lead-carrying water spewing from the taps in our public (and high class private) housing estates, experienced mariners making elementary navigation errors at sea – are these "one-off" blunders or symptoms of a deeper malaise?

Let’s start by getting some facts on the table. According to an investigation by a senior medical professional, dirty linen (sheets, pillow cases etc) was being sent by Queen Mary Hospital to an off-site laundry where it was not being cleaned thoroughly enough (the water was not hot enough to kill all germs) before it was packed up while still warm and sent back to the hospital for re-use. Not surprisingly, on return the linen was a hothouse of potential infection. Indeed a number of patients were infected as a result and the situation may have contributed to the death of some of them.

Moreover, the same laundry had been cleaning the linen for a decade and there were doubts whether the specified bug killing water temperature (71 degrees Celsius) had ever been reached. During that 10 years the laundry had been subject to monthly inspections.

Meanwhile, thousands of households are now known to have been consuming fresh tap water with levels of lead way in excess of safety limits prescribed by the World Health Organisation and our own regulations. Moreover we are still not entirely sure whether the source of the contamination is the water main in the road, the piping within estates, the soldering which connects the pipes or even the taps themselves (the source of a similar scare in Sweden some years ago). What we do know is that the health and development of many young children, and babies still in the womb, has been prejudiced because the concentration of lead in their bodies, or that of their expectant mothers, is too high. The full scale of the adverse health effects is still being assessed.

Going back further in time, we had the tragedy of the Lamma island ferry collision where 39 people lost their lives. It later transpired that one of the vessels had passed inspection despite not having been constructed in accordance with its approved plans. Of the two captains involved, one was not keeping a proper lookout though when he did detect danger at least he turned the right way – to starboard – to try to avoid or minimise consequences of a collision. The other not only failed to keep a proper lookout but when he did take action turned to port instead of starboard in direct contravention of the elementary rules of the sea.

What do these very different cases have in common that has led me to group them together? The answer in each case is that the work in question was being conducted by, or under the direct supervision of, a qualified professional.

Now we in Hong Kong take great pride in the quality of our professional services. We market ourselves to the world as Asia’s World City, the place where world-class services are available to all. Financial services, insurance arrangements, architectural design, legal advice, other business services? Hong Kong is home to top-notch professionals in every category.

Yet this story can only be convincing if we maintain, and are seen to maintain, the highest standards. That means employers and professional bodies must be much more rigorous in holding their appointees or members accountable. Who signed off on those monthly laundry inspections? Who passed the plumbing of the estates as up to standard and who was monitoring them? Who put his chop on the ship’s drawings and completed vessel? Who last assessed the mariners’ abilities?

And we must answer questions like these much more quickly than we do at present. The Medical Council, for example, is notorious in the length of time taken to deal with complaints against doctors. All the signs are we have slipped into a state of complacency with respect to professional standards and if we allow that impression to gain a foothold we undermine the very qualities that make Hong Kong successful.