'Mr great guy' Back in the fray

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 July, 2012, 12:00am


Seven years ago, Dr Ko Wing-man said he was definitely not interested in returning to public service. He had quit his senior post with the Hospital Authority a year earlier, in the wake of the mishandling of the 2003 Sars crisis, and returned to private practice. So the question on the lips of many Hongkongers when he was named as Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's food and health minister was: what changed his mind?

'How much the government emphasises social justice was a main concern in making the decision,' Ko told the South China Morning Post, citing Leung's commitment to helping the poor.

During his years away from public service Ko split his time between orthopaedic work and leading roles in non-governmental organisations such as the Red Cross, the Anti-Cancer Society and the Regeneration Society, roles he says reflect his interest in social justice.

'This value is reflected in my volunteer work. In working with NGOs, I tend to work for small NGOs.'

Ko left the public health system he had worked in for 24 years under a cloud, in the wake of a Legislative Council report that criticised the government and the authority's handling of the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak that killed 299 people in the city. As the authority's human resources chief, he was thrust into the leadership of the organisation when chief executive William Ho Shiu-wei was struck down with Sars.

But Ko said there was also another reason to quit the authority - he felt his managerial responsibilities were a distraction from his real passion - improving clinical services.

'I felt that in my position, I wasn't able to make use of my main attribute,' he says.

Ko says he wants the new government to build its partnership with patients' rights groups, which he says have lost some of their influence as society has focused on political and constitutional, rather than social, problems.

'Patient groups' voices are smaller than they were 15 years ago,' he says.

He believes the focus is now switching back to livelihood issues, meaning there will be more opportunity to improve medical services and, he hopes, patients' voices will be heard.

Ko studied at Queen's College and the University of Hong Kong, graduating in 1981 and taking up a post at Princess Margaret Hospital in Kwai Chung. He later moved to the Hospital Services Department, which managed public hospitals until 1990, and the Hospital Authority.

Tim Pang Hung-cheong, a community organiser with the Patients' Rights Association of the Society for Community Organisation, had dealings with Ko when the doctor worked for the Hospital Authority and has praise for the new health chief.

'He is an articulate person. It's not easy to get the upper hand when debating with him. He's a skilful speaker,' Pang says.

He believes Leung and Ko are more cautious when it comes to developing the private medical sector than the government of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and says Ko's commitment to maintaining a large public medical sector shows his commitment to helping the grass roots. 'This is very important, especially for chronic patients,' he says.

But Ko did not always deliver what Pang wanted - particularly during discussions about a plan to implement a HK$100 charge for emergency medical treatment in 2002. The day before the charge came in, Pang met Ko to discuss a mechanism to exempt some patients from the fee.

'He came with empty hands. I felt he was not prepared to give us much explanation,' he says, adding that he felt the doctors did not express sincerity during the talks.

For Dr Lo Wing-lok, a former lawmaker and Medical Association president, Ko's character makes him an ideal government official.

'He doesn't offend people,' Lo says. 'He's not a person who holds strong opinions.'

But one mis-step Lo points to was when Ko made a tearful offer to quit while speaking on RTHK in April 2003, at the height of the Sars crisis. He had been criticised for failing to do enough to protect medical workers from the outbreak. Lo said a top-ranking official should have known his responsibility and avoided tears.

But University of Hong Kong microbiologist Dr Ho Pak-leung, who has known Ko for more than a decade and worked closely with him in fighting infectious diseases, describes him as 'Mr Great Guy'.

'I feel comfortable discussing things with him. Unlike other Hospital Authority officials, he doesn't speak in an official tone,' the former Public Doctors' Association president says.

Ko understands problems that frontline doctors face as he used to lead a doctors' union in the late 1980s, Ho says.

The new health chief shares much with his predecessor, Dr York Chow Yat-ngok. Both attended Queen's College and they worked together at Princess Margaret Hospital. Chow refuses to share in public his advice for his old colleague, but says he has confidence in him to carry on his policies. At media briefings, Chow has urged journalists not to bully Ko.

For his part, Ko says he will miss his patients - he was among the first batch of local doctors practising on the mainland under the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement - as he places himself in the crosshairs and prepares to deal with the controversy that comes with his high-profile job.

But, he adds: 'There have been changes in the past. Nothing is permanent in life.

'It's not looking at what I want to do, but looking at where the need is.'