Tarnished image

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 April, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 April, 2001, 12:00am

After Wednesday's judgment on the doctor who conducted a telephone call during surgery, the public is entitled to ask whether there is any point in having a Medical Council in Hong Kong.

It has been fiercely criticised many times as little more than a closed brotherhood banding together to protect the interests of members. But this time the council's blinkered view warrants more than mere concern. The subject of the telephone call is immaterial. An operating theatre should be a wholly sterile area devoid of anything likely to distract a surgeon in the course of his work.

This patient suffered a perforated bowel and had to have a second operation, but this, we learn, is simply a common complication of the procedure and nothing to do with the fact that a doctor who has scrubbed up and donned a surgical gown, cap and mask, somehow - incredibly - failed to notice he was wired up to a microphone and ear piece.

It speaks volumes about the attitude in some medical circles that some colleagues of the surgeon are urging him to lodge an appeal against an earlier Hospital Authority hearing which found him guilty of serious misconduct and blocked his salary increases and promotion prospects for five years.

Is it any wonder there is a widely held opinion that too many contemporary Hong Kong doctors are overly self-interested and more concerned with the business side of medicine than with the ethical standards that have been inculcated on their predecessors?

If the body charged with upholding those standards is so ready to relax them, what chance is there that attitudes will change and clinical practice will improve? There was an outcry last year after a surgeon who removed a pregnant woman's uterus, therefore ending the life of her unborn child and any prospect of the woman bearing others, was simply issued with a warning letter. Council chairman Dr Lee Kin-hung - the man expected to make the body more transparent - responded then by telling 'outsiders' not to comment on internal matters. What he should be doing is assuring members of the public that the council has their interests at heart. Even council members have expressed concern that colleagues put their electorate first. Of eight panel members on Wednesday, only one was a layman.

Doctors complain that a compensation culture is making it difficult for them to work. But if people cannot look to the Medical Council to redress complaints, can they be blamed for taking legal action? The council's image is badly tarnished. Patients have no confidence in it and that reflects badly on the profession it represents. The appointment of a health ombudsman who can act as an independent arbiter seems the only way to ensure justice for both sides.