University urged to broaden inquiry
Doctors cashing in by organising conferences
The University of Hong Kong has been urged to broaden the investigation into its medical faculty as more criticism emerged over the lack of supervision of income from conferences and donations.
Sources close to the faculty said previous complaints about the billing of private medical services fees were the 'tip of the iceberg' of more serious 'institutional problems' within the faculty, involving at least two different departments and senior academics.
Sources asked whether millions of dollars in income from conferences and private donations had gone through accounts outside the university's control.
The institution has set up a four-member committee of inquiry to look into billing arrangements at the department of medicine. But at least four medical sources said the lack of supervision of funds was a problem for the whole faculty.
A source close to the faculty said the surgical department makes more than HK$10 million from private consultations, with one or two top surgeons making more than HK$3 million each.
'One thing the public may not know is that income from private consultations is only part of the picture, some doctors are making even more from organising medical conferences but no one knows where the money goes.'
The source said holding medical conferences was an 'easy and direct' way to make both a reputation and money. 'You can get handsome sponsorship from pharmaceutical companies, such as HK$300,000 to HK$400,000 for a conference for more than 1,000 participants. For bigger conferences, the sponsorship can be as high as HK$1 million.'
The source said the organiser also charges each participant thousands of dollars in fees and the final surplus of a single conference can be more than HK$400,000.
Organisers sometimes deposited the earnings in a private company or trust fund, which was beyond the university's reach. 'The same thing happens to private donations; some donors were told to donate their money to a medical fund and receipts issued to donors did not carry any serial numbers.'
Another source said it was a continual power struggle between drug makers and doctors who have the power to choose drugs for patients.
'The sponsorship will grow with your position. If you are more senior inside the faculty, the pharmaceutical companies are willing to spend more to win your favour.'
A conference organiser who worked with the faculty said there were obvious loopholes in its financial system and it was open to abuse. 'Our events make money every year but the money stays in a separate account and the university does not know [of] its existence.'
Acting Dean of Medicine Raymond Liang Hin-suen said yesterday that academic staff who organise medical conferences in the name of the faculty have to return all revenues to the university.
But if the staff organise conferences for other medical groups, the profits will go to those groups.
'There is always room for improvement in our system, nothing is perfect,' Professor Liang said.