Tung fails to deliver on Chinese medicine plan

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 June, 2004, 12:00am

The plan to make Hong Kong a hub for development of traditional Chinese medicine made a certain amount of sense when it was first outlined in Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's 1998 policy address. Hong Kong, as a successful blend of east and west, seemed well-positioned to popularise Chinese medicine to the rest of the world. It was also reasonable to begin putting the practice on a more equal footing with western medicine in our hospitals, at a time when many major university hospitals all over the world were exploring the benefits of traditional and herbal remedies through clinical trials. Six years after the speech, however, very little visible progress has been made on any of these fronts, and a rethink of the strategy is called for.

Perhaps the most pressing issue is solving the dilemma of the 2,000 or so students now enrolled in the city's three degree programmes for traditional Chinese medicine. These students, inspired by the policy address, have invested several hundred thousand dollars and five years of their time to become qualified practitioners, only to find that very few new clinical positions await them upon graduation. The public, through the universities, has also invested millions in their training. But starting from this summer, when the first batch graduates, there is clearly a shortage of jobs for these new licensees. Indeed, the problem became clear years ago, when many began looking towards the mainland for clinical experience to fulfil their degree requirements.

Perhaps the government expected a private-sector boom that would absorb these new graduates, but one has not materialised. In the public sector, 18 outpatient clinics were promised for the public hospitals, but only three have been opened. Addressing the gap will probably have to include speeding up creation of the hospital clinics, as well as building up ties with traditional Chinese medicine hospitals and clinics in Hong Kong and the mainland to improve chances of placement for the new licensees.

The mismatch between graduates and positions available in the field is just a symptom, however, of larger problems with the original, ambitious plan. It was a grand vision backed by very few details and, by world standards, paltry amounts of funding. The most concrete and successful element has probably been the registration and regulation of existing practitioners, and stricter health and safety standards for Chinese medicine marketed in Hong Kong. Other goals - such as making Hong Kong a centre for research, manufacturing and trade of Chinese herbal medicine - are still far from reality.

Research of the kind that is being supported by the $500 million Jockey Club Institute for Traditional Chinese Medicine will take years to come to fruition. Applying western laboratory research methods to find new and patentable compounds in traditional herbal formulas is largely uncharted territory. No one should expect any marketable products to be forthcoming in the short term, especially when the first projects gained approval only in 2002.

But it is also clear that Mr Tung's government has backed away from any bold measures in this area. In 1999, it was made clear there would be no subsidy for the 'Chinese medicine port' that many property developers were keen to bid on. The traditional Chinese medicine hospital that many advocates have lobbied for has clearly been ruled out. And in September, the University Grants Committee chose to fund only half the $200 million needed to build an alternative medicine research centre at the University of Hong Kong.

It would seem that the time has come for the government to make clear its plans for development of traditional Chinese medicine in Hong Kong. The public would likely accept something much less ambitious and more realistic than what was envisioned six years ago. But at the very least, those who are training to enter the field, and the taxpayers supporting their education, deserve to know where things stand.