Medical Council should be more than a trade body
In order to alleviate the persistent manpower shortages at public hospitals, the Hospital Authority has decided to hire overseas doctors as a stop-gap measure. The authority recently submitted nine applications to the Medical Council for vetting. But the evaluation of three of the applications has been postponed because of insufficient data about the applicants' work experience.
Council member Dr Shea Tat-ming criticised the authority's initial vetting process for being too lenient, and said the authority did not seem to fully understand the applicants' qualifications. Since overseas-trained doctors were already being fast-tracked for hire without having to sit licensing examinations, the authority should have been more stringent and screened them properly, Shea said.
Local private doctors have been vehemently opposing the hiring of overseas doctors exempted from the exam. On the surface, they seem to be fighting to uphold the high standards of health-care services in Hong Kong, but in fact they are motivated by vested interests. To solve the problem, the government needs to overhaul the entire system.
The Medical Council's chairwoman, Felice Lieh Mak, is about to step down after six years because of unwritten rules about how long any one person can hold a position at a statutory body.
But exceptional times call for exceptional measures, and I believe Lieh Mak should stay on. She is highly regarded and will be difficult to replace. Furthermore, we need to overhaul the Medical Council, which is riddled with bad operational practices and outdated regulations. There's no better choice than Lieh Mak to take on this task.
A former chairwoman of the English Schools Foundation, she contributed immensely to its governance reform. With such a track record, she could undoubtedly lead reforms to improve the operations of the Medical Council.
The council is not supposed to be a professional body that represents the interests of local doctors. But its composition is quite different from that commonly seen elsewhere. Its membership is almost completely monopolised by medical professionals, without proper representation of end users. That means the needs and demands of the public are not reflected.
Take Britain as an example. The General Medical Council, which regulates doctors in Britain, has 24 members, half of whom are not medical professionals. In Hong Kong, the number is four out of 28, and they are appointed by the government. It's obvious that the medical profession has a monopoly on the running of the council.
All cases of medical mishaps are referred to the council for investigation. In some cases, questions have been raised about the complaints process, with accusations that some doctors have been treated leniently. With doctors policing doctors, it's hard not to suspect there is a certain degree of protectionism.
To tackle the manpower shortage at public hospitals, we need to act swiftly. But the proposal to recruit overseas doctors, who will be restricted to working in the public sector, has been strongly opposed by the council and private doctors. They fear their personal and professional interests are being put at risk; their action has nothing to do with upholding professional standards and ethics.
It's unreasonable to say overseas doctors do not measure up to local standards when the majority of our doctors were trained overseas. Furthermore, we must place public interest ahead of those of any individual group because we are talking about the well-being of the general public.
The council has to move with the times and be able to embrace diverse views and accept different opinions and ideas.
In the long run, the best way to tackle the recurrent problem of manpower shortages is to open up the market and allow trained medical professionals, in particular those who have permanent Hong Kong identity cards, to work in the city without having to sit licensing exams.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. firstname.lastname@example.org