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 has recently come under criticism for long waiting times for patients, with some calling for their plight to be eased.

After going through the tedious process many times over the past two years, Liu said he is used to it.

“I've been here for extractions a dozen times,” he told The Washington Post. “I have no income. The private clinic charges HK$800 [US$102] HK$2,000 per tooth. I can't afford it.

Patients have to return multiple times because the sign states a clinic rule: “One tooth per visit; limited to pain relief and extractions.”

The Tsuen Wan clinic is open twice a week and can accommodate up to 42 patients at a time. It is one of three dental clinics serving New Territories West, which has a population of nearly 2 million.

Patients wait for dental services at Tsuen Wan Dental Clinic. The number of dental appointments at the city's 11 public clinics fell by about 50% between the 2018-19 financial year and the 2022-23 financial year.Photo: Yi Yangwen

The Kennedy Town Community Complex Dental Clinic is the only government-run dental clinic on Hong Kong Island that provides emergency dental services to the public. It is also open twice a week with the same quota.

Waiting in line was an 81-year-old Ms. Chen. She said she needed to have nine cavities removed, and this time it was the fourth one.

“The dentist told me that removing more than one tooth per visit would be unfair to others. This meant I had to return multiple times,” she said. “I still need to extract about four or five teeth, which would cost HK$10,000 if I went to a private dentist.”

She said she doesn't mind the multiple visits and long wait times because the treatment is free.

“you can go yum cha A lot of times it's HK$10,000,” she said, referring to her favorite dim sum meal. “You know us seniors would rather spend our money on food.”

Midnight registration system to be launched in 2022, been criticized It was punished by the audit committee last month for forcing patients to wait for hours.
In response, the Ministry of Health allowed patients Pre-registration 8pm instead of midnight.

While Liu and Chen applaud the adjustment, they expect wait times to continue to grow as long as daily quotas remain the same.

The committee also criticized the number of dental appointments at the city's 11 public clinics, which fell by about 50 per cent from 40,322 in 2018-19 to 20,337 in 2022-23.

The department blamed the Covid-19 pandemic and said staffing has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Officials later said a new digital ticketing system would be launched in July and a platform would be set up to help elderly patients.

Regarding the long waiting times, Director of the Health Bureau Luo Zhongmao said: “It is a utopian idea to have all medical services available immediately without queuing.”

As of December last year, there were approximately 2,876 registered dentists in Hong Kong, or just one dentist for nearly 3,000 people.

The government projects a shortage of 115 dentists by 2030, which will continue until 2040.

The government also plans to subsidize elderly residents who travel across the border to see dentists. Starting from the third quarter of this year at the earliest, the scope of use of the Elderly Health Care Voucher Scheme will be expanded to seven more hospitals and dental clinics in mainland China cities.

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

A 59-year-old painter surnamed Wu who queued up to register at a Tsuen Wan clinic on Thursday said that if he could not see a dentist the next day, he would go to Shenzhen to see a dentist.

“It costs HK$200 to HK$300 to extract a tooth in Shenzhen… I checked six private clinics in Hong Kong and the cheapest one charges HK$1,650, excluding X-ray fees,” he said.

“There is a saying in China, 'Toothache is a serious disease.' I am very poor. I have no choice but to endure it.”

Tim Pang Hung-cheong, a patient rights advocate with the Association of Community Organizations, said some of the planned changes would only provide a “temporary answer” to specific criticisms of night queues.

“The fundamental problem is manpower shortage. The series of measures planned by the authorities will not have an effect within one or two years,” he said.

He believes the government can do more to ease the plight of patients.

Talking about the experience of the 83-year-old patient Mr. Liu, he asked: “When Mr. Liu extracted the first tooth, could the dentist make an appointment to extract the other 10 cavities, so that he would not have to queue 10 times?”

Noting that Hong Kong's elderly lack awareness of dental care, he added: “If the government strengthens education on dental hygiene for the elderly, will Lau need to have all his teeth extracted?”

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