Public doctors deserve reward for long hours

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 April, 2011, 12:00am


Hong Kong doctors endure long working hours and a heavy workload, and this has affected their job performance and the quality of service at public hospitals. The lack of resources and staff shortages have also created a vicious cycle, putting increasing pressure on the public medical system and posing a serious threat to the health of the public.

Some of these concerns were highlighted in a survey conducted by an action group formed by public doctors to push for standard working hours. The group comprises members of the Frontline Doctors' Union and the Public Doctors' Association.

In the poll of 711 public doctors, about 80 per cent of the respondents said working long hours affected their medical judgment and 40 per cent said long hours had led to errors in diagnosis.

We can't say for sure that this survey reflects a widespread problem, but it does raise issues.

According to the survey, public doctors work an average of 65.6 hours per week. Furthermore, three per cent of the respondents work more than 100 hours per week, and 12 per cent of them work more than 80 hours a week.

The action group called on the Hospital Authority to implement standard working hours for public doctors, limiting it eventually to 44 hours per week with compensation for overtime.

On the face of it, working 65.6 hours per week does sound a bit extreme as it amounts to more than 10 hours a day over a six-day week. But in today's Hong Kong, not many jobs are really from nine to five anymore. Most Hongkongers ordinarily work 10 hours a day.

There are also people who work anywhere from 80 hours per week. This is commonplace in the city, especially for professionals such as lawyers, accountants and bankers. Some of them even work seven days a week if they have to travel overseas for business. So working 12 to 13 hours a day, seven days a week and clocking up 80 to 100 hours per week is certainly nothing unusual. Therefore, public doctors' demands for a standard 44 hours per week is difficult to implement.

In fact, professors at our medical schools, who have to teach, work and conduct research, often clock up more than 100 hours per week. We have never heard them complain about working overtime or long hours. Working long hours very often has to do with the nature of the profession, and sometimes it's unavoidable.

The crux of the matter is not about long hours, but compensation for overtime. It means public doctors will not mind working beyond their so-called standard hours as long as they are properly compensated. The public sector has been losing nurses and doctors to private hospitals in recent years. The workload and hours at private hospitals will not be less than those in the public sector, but the only difference is they pay better.

I don't oppose public doctors fighting for better conditions and pay, but they shouldn't use long working hours as an excuse. And they should know that in today's competitive and highly demanding environment, it's impractical to limit working hours to eight hours a day, especially in the medical sector.

The government spends about 5 per cent of the city's gross domestic product on health care services a year. The administration needs to increase medical spending to upgrade services and expand resources.

It also has to improve the conditions for public doctors and narrow the pay difference between public and private sectors in order to stop the brain drain.

But, while money is important, it should not be the priority. Good doctors should also be willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of their patients. We salute all good doctors for their selfless giving.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.