Medical genius? Well, his mum says so

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 August, 2005, 12:00am

The debate over whether medical practitioners should be allowed to advertise is on. So allow me to let you in on a little secret: doctors in Hong Kong have already been doing it.

The Medical Council has rules laid out in the Code of Practice, or 'red book'. It says: 'Self-advertisement, canvassing or publicity to enhance or promote a professional reputation for the purpose of attracting patients would constitute professional misconduct.'

If any of these rules are flaunted or infringed upon openly, the Medical Council will get on the doctor's case and disciplinary action will follow. But privately, all the rules are broken. Doctors can get away with it because they have accomplices.

Self-promotion is rampant among private doctors. Walk into many clinics, especially older ones, and you will find mirrors and plaques on the walls, singing the doctor's praises: 'Magic hands and a kind heart'; 'a medical genius'; and 'Wah Tor born again' (a reference to the legendary ancient healer known to bring back patients from the brink of death). They are gifts from friends and relatives, so it is not self-promotion. Some doctors prefer something more tailor-made. Hence a plaque inscribed with career highlights in script, reading like a eulogy. It may start with the claim that the doctor was brilliant even as a child, and that he scored straight As in school. The conclusion is usually about his saintly character: his total dedication to patients and to humanity in general. Someone else wrote the script, not him, so it's not against the rules.

I used to work for the health insurance industry. When my staff called a doctor's office to ask why the charge for a particular surgery was way over the top, it was not unusual for the nurses to tell us that it was because the surgeon was the best in town - or the only one in Hong Kong trained to perform the surgery using that special technique. Now, who could possibly have told the nurses that?

One doctor has his mother mill around his clinic, extolling his virtues and disparaging other doctors in the neighbourhood.

She tells patients they should consider themselves lucky to be in the care of such a great doctor. Who can blame his mum for doing it? In fact, who could blame her for overdoing it?

I am all for medical advertising in which a doctor's curriculum vitae is on display, because the most important information about a doctor - for a patient, anyway - is his or her medical training and experience. And with all this going on behind the Medical Council's back, what is the point of prohibiting doctors from displaying their bona fide CVs for all patients to see?

Years ago, a doctor who used to work as a general practitioner in the US returned to Hong Kong with new-found status as a cancer specialist. He was able to trumpet his dubious qualification through his wife, who was active on the social scene. If his CV had been on display for everyone to see, no cancer patient would have gone near him.

The Medical Council's stand on advertisements is that they have to be 'accurate, factual and not tasteless'. One can verify accuracy and facts, but taste is subjective, and regulating it would be an exercise in futility. I think the council should do away with the 'taste' test.

We need not be too worried: if the self-promotional tactics some private doctors employ now are anything to go by, the public will not be easily fooled, but they will certainly be amused.

Feng Chi-shun is a consultant pathologist at St Paul's Hospital, Causeway Bay