A growing number of senior government doctors are leaving the Hospital Authority. The latest figures show that 39 consultant and associate consultant physicians left the government between April and July while more than 200 public doctors joined private practice in the past year, of whom about one-third have over 10 years' experience.
Queen Mary Hospital, the teaching hospital of the University of Hong Kong, is the hardest hit, having lost several of its professor-grade doctors, who have all migrated to the private sector.
The mass exodus is affecting all government hospitals and critical staff shortages are causing internal damage to our entire public health system. We must stop the haemorrhaging.
There are many reasons behind the mass departure. But, the root cause is that many public doctors, especially the most experienced, are under-appreciated and overworked. And, to rub salt into the wound, Secretary for Food and Health York Chow Yat-ngok, who is obsessed with the idea of privatising public health care, has put a stranglehold on its long-term development by depriving it of necessary funding and cutting resources.
About a decade ago when Yeoh Eng-kiong was in charge of our public health system, it dominated 90 per cent of the market in terms of medical services, providing care to most Hong Kong people.
This lopsided distribution of health care prompted fierce protest from private practitioners who vehemently pressed the government to redress the imbalance by privatising some services. At the same time, their representatives in the Legislative Council launched an unrelenting attack on senior public doctors, claiming they were vastly overpaid.
Hong Kong doctors are well-respected professionals. The highly qualified consultant physicians and professor-grade doctors have chosen to work in the public sector because they feel passionate about what they do and want to serve the public. Unfortunately, their enthusiasm is being repaid by unfair criticism and thus having their passion eroded by a lack of support.
Many professors who are teaching at the medical school of the University of Hong Kong have dedicated their lives to education. They are not after monetary rewards but merely motivated by a sense of public duty. Without their sacrifices and determination to pass on their medical knowledge, our society would no doubt suffer.
Public doctors who occasionally treat private patients at government specialist clinics do not make a lot of money from consultation, as claimed by critics. They provide high-quality specialist services at affordable rates to the public, especially the middle class who can't afford private hospital charges.
In fact, there are rules to guide this public-private interface health care service; the HKU stipulates that its teaching staff can only attend to private patients for no more than eight hours a week. Attending to private patients is considered to be least important and is allowed only after the professors have fulfilled their teaching, research and other university-related duties.
Therefore, we have no reason to believe that there was ever any neglect of duty. On the contrary, we should thank these professors for providing such superb medical services to the public.
Detractors, who have blatantly ignored the truth, are doing society a huge injustice; they are forcing many good doctors to quit and move to private practice because they feel unsupported, misunderstood and frustrated at work.
Public health care is a long-term investment for the fundamental good of society. The government must ensure that it is maintained at a high standard and equally distributed while its health care professionals are fully supported. To retain good doctors within the public sector, the government must provide a professional working environment, sufficient resources, as well as fair and performance-related remuneration. Other than money, we also need to pay doctors their due respect.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator