CHOICE # 299

14 September 2001
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Greater transparency in price disclosure needed for private hospitals

The Consumer Council has called for greater transparency in disclosure of charging practice and price information.

This followed a Council's survey in a bid to collect information on the fees and charges of 12 private hospitals in Hong Kong.

The survey, however, found most hospitals only provide basic room rates and deposits which, in many incidences, are hardly indicative of the actual size of the final bill.

This has given rise to complaints alleging excessive overcharging by private hospitals and medical practitioners. Highlighted in this September issue of CHOICE are complaints of consumers faced with hefty private hospital bills far in excess of the estimation they were quoted in the first place.

Specific examples of consumer dissatisfaction as revealed in the complaints include:

  • The imposition of "isolation charge" at $1,773 per day in addition to the daily room (third-class) rate of $567 as the patient was put into a third-class room by herself. Neither did the patient request for such treatment nor was the family informed of such a charge beforehand.
  • Under an "emergency call service", on late Sunday night, the patient was charged double for the surgical operation and an additional charge of $29,559.
  • Some consumers have also raised query of the differential charging practice of private hospitals in accordance with the class or grade of accommodation of the patients.

The Consumer Council has put forward a number of recommendations to the Hong Kong Private Hospitals Association (HKPHA) to help improve transparency of price disclosure:

  • Better communication between doctors and private hospitals to ensure patients will receive more accurate estimation or quotation of the total medical costs.
  • Detailed listing of cost of each charge item on the medical bill.
  • Establish clear policy and explain thoroughly the need and costs of "isolation" charge.
  • Display "emergency call service" charges in prominent area and inform patients in need of such service.
  • Disclose to the public price information of commonly used medical services and items such as commonly used drugs, vaccines, medical supplies and apparatus, differential charging rates, surgical room charges, in-house physician and nursing charges, etc.

The HKPHA has responded positively to the Council's proposals to increase transparency of price disclosure between patients and doctors, hospitals and staff. Further, the HKPHA has undertaken to study the viability of abolishing the current practice of differential charging practice.

Are fitness centres safe?

The safety of fitness centres has come under the scrutiny of the Consumer Council.

In a survey in association with the Physical Fitness Association of Hong Kong, China, staff of the Council visited 10 fitness centres and inspected in particular the fitness floor, the aerobic room, the sauna room and the steam room.

Also inspected was the availability, if any, of emergency plan, pre-activity screening, and the supply of first-aid kits. Highlights of the survey showed:-

  • By and large, these fitness centres were able to measure up to the basic requirements of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) guidelines on safety.
  • In the fitness area, the area-per-equipment was measured to range from 36 sq.ft. to 85 sq.ft. while the area-per-user from 21 sq.ft. to 64 sq.ft., both in compliance with the ACSM's minimum requirement of 20 sq.ft.
  • Nonetheless, the treadmills in some fitness centres were found to be too close in parallel to each other. Some of the equipment may also be too close to the emergency exists posing problems of escape in the event of an accident. Electrical wires of some equipment were also seen to protrude on the floor that may become potential trap for tripping.
  • The fitness centres have all undertaken to tackle the problems to enhance safety to consumers.
  • In the aerobic rooms, the user-to-instructor ratio was also in compliance with the ACSM guidelines, ranging from 10:1 to 50:1. But fitness centres are urged to pay more attention to the area-per-user in aerobic rooms, particularly in classes with a big number of users.
  • In the sauna room and the steam room where the temperature is high and so users are advised not to stay for too long. A reliable timepiece is important for reference of the users. But usually only one sand clock is installed for one room, this is considered not enough for the many users together.
  • All centres responded affirmatively to the existence of emergency procedures for their staff to follow, but only some could produce written documents of such plan. It is important that fitness centres should have an emergency plan according to their own environment to handle accidents properly as soon as possible.

In view of the growing number of fitness centres and consumer interest in exercise, the Consumer Council calls on the fitness industry to exercise greater self-discipline. Currently there is no specific legislation regulating fitness centres in Hong Kong. Should it become necessary, the Government is recommended to consult the trade on the possibility of licensing fitness centre instructors.

Increased parental burden on textbook expenditures

There was to be no relief on parental burden in textbook expenditures for this year, according to a Consumer Council's survey based on the booklists from 43 primary and 46 secondary schools.

On average, parents had to pay a price of $1,528 to purchase the textbooks needed for one child in primary school. This represents an increase of 9% over the last year (2000).

The increase is less in the secondary school sector. The average expenditure was $1,905, or a rise of 4.3%.

In addition, the highest average expenditure in textbooks this year was found at Form One level - at $2,330.

This is due to some students having to purchase such books as the Atlas, Bible, and Dictionary which are generally used for several years. Also, new syllabuses in two subjects were introduced for this level this year. Prices of textbooks for the new Mathematics syllabus rose dramatically by 38% while the increase for the new English syllabus textbooks was 4.6%.

Other notable increases were recorded in the Primary 4 and Primary 6 levels at 12.3% and 12.6% respectively. Apart from rising costs of textbooks, the expanded in the number of subjects and the implementation of Target Oriented Curriculum (TOC) were reasons attributed to increased textbook expenditures.

The survey also threw light on the selection process of textbooks by the schools. The variations in the textbook expenditures among the schools were considerable.

For instance, in the case of Form One, one school required their students to purchase many workbooks and dictionaries amounting to $3,222. On the other hand, one school prepared its own teaching notes in 5 subjects and the expenditure was only $991.

Similarly in the primary school sector, the highest expenditure for Primary Two was $2,106 as the school required the purchase of many English supplementary books or exercises such as story books, grammar, listening exercises. The lowest expenditure, on the other hand, was $904 as the school needed no workbooks for Chinese and General Studies subjects and also fewer English subject books.

Beware of abnormal signs of TV set to avoid fire hazards

Watch out for tell-tale signs of malfunctioning of your TV set.

Fire accidents suspected to be caused by malfunctioning TV sets have risen in the first half of this year. There were already 6 cases (an average of one for each month) compared with 8 for the whole of last year.

Concerned over the incidence of TV set-related fire accidents, the Consumer Council has put together a comprehensive list of tell-tale signs of TV malfunctioning and precautions to prevent fire accidents.

Here are the signs of abnormal operation:-

  • When your TV set turns on or off by itself.
  • Delivers unsteady sound or picture.
  • Shows darker pictures than before.
  • Takes longer time to brighten up.

When such signs occur, stop watching your TV and arrange an inspection from the agent immediately.

Here are the precautions you can take to minimise the risk of your TV set ablaze:-

  • Switch off or unplug the TV while not watching for a long time, or leaving the room or during a thunderstorm.
  • Do not share a TV set with too many appliances on a single supply outlet to avoid overloading.
  • Do not place a TV set in direct sunlight, areas of excessive heat, moisture or dust.
  • Allow enough space around the TV for ventilation.
  • Clean regularly to prevent accumulation of dust over the ventilation slots.

Consumers are particularly reminded that some of the 2-in-1 TV/VCR sets may not be provided with switch that can cut off the appliance from the mains supply. If it is not used for a long time, users are advised to unplug the appliance altogether or where available turn off the switch on the socket.

Should a fire on TV occur, consumers should keep calm and try to unplug the TV at once. Raise the alarm and remove any combustible objects around the set. Never pour water when the TV or other appliances are still connected to the mains.

Investors' right to accurate factual information is at risk

The Consumer Council has expressed concern that consumers may not be receiving the best of information on the purchase of investment funds.

The concern arises as banks are actively marketing investment funds, including guaranteed funds, B-class fund and other products, to depositors in view of the current low interest rates for bank deposits.

Many of these depositors, however, had neither the knowledge nor experience of investment and had to rely mainly on the professional advice of the bank staff.

Recent complaints received by the Council indicated that bank employees appeared to be interested in only luring depositors into investment schemes, with promises of "high interest rates" and "100% guarantee". Consumers were not explained about the nature and charges of the investment products.

At least one complainant claimed that he thought his money was in a high interest deposit account when in fact it was invested in an investment-linked insurance scheme.

The Council's own enquiry has shown that few bank staff had the ability to provide instant answers to questions on investment options. In fact some information provided turned out to be incorrect and misleading.

The Council is concerned that bank employees should provide accurate factual information about the investment products they are marketing. Banks should ensure that their staff are adequately trained to provide full and objective information to the public and not only to promote sales.

Included in this issue of CHOICE is a comprehensive report on B shares for the reference of consumers in the light of the trend of increasing public interest in investment funds.