Private doctors' failed bid to help belies their sincerity

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 January, 2012, 12:00am


The perennial manpower shortage problem at local public hospitals has yet to be resolved. A stopgap measure was introduced to alleviate the crisis by bringing in overseas doctors without requiring them to sit entrance exams. But only nine doctors' applications have been approved amid vehement opposition from local private doctors.

Private doctors claim that the staff shortages in the public sector are a result of Hospital Authority mismanagement. They said their opposition to the scheme was meant to uphold the high standard of health care services here.

Last year, it was proposed that private doctors could help lighten the workload in the public sector by working part-time in public hospitals. That measure has been shelved after just four months. Dr Choi Kin, president of the Medical Association, blamed bureaucracy for the scheme's failure. He said the Hospital Authority was ineffective in rostering private doctors to take up public-hospital duties.

But, the truth is that the private doctors were choosy and refused to work in hospitals in remote locations in the New Territories. Hence, scheduling of these part-time doctors and manpower management proved difficult, rendering the scheme ineffective.

There were cases in which the authority allocated private doctors to work in New Territories hospitals, but the requests were turned down. A common excuse was the inconvenience because their clinics were located in urban areas and travelling to the New Territories would take too much time.

Private doctors must have known that, to ease the workload in the public sector, much assistance would be needed in New Territories hospitals.

There have been suggestions that this proposal was nothing but a strategic move to block the introduction of overseas doctors. To put it bluntly, private doctors have no genuine intention of helping out; they merely want to protect their interests, as they fear the scheme to bring in overseas doctors without requiring them to sit entrance exams would inundate the market with competitors.

The plan to bring in qualified overseas doctors is not only an effective measure to tackle the manpower issue, it is also a good value-for-money approach that will benefit patients most. It matches the future trend of expanding the expertise and talent base of the medical sector.

The scheme will add manpower to the existing system, and attract overseas-trained local doctors to return to Hong Kong. These doctors are highly qualified; they have been trained and worked in the United States and/or Europe for many years. Their experience would be invaluable. Furthermore, the scheme restricts them to working in public hospitals and this will certainly benefit the public sector.

To train a doctor locally takes at least seven years and costs millions of dollars. So, importing qualified doctors is an excellent short cut to help upgrade our medical workforce.

In an effort to attract and retain the best foreign talent, the US Congress has introduced a bill that seeks to give permanent residency to foreigners who have earned their PhD in engineering and other disciplines in the US. Obviously, talent is welcome everywhere.

There are suggestions that improving working hours and conditions in public hospitals would help retain staff. This approach might keep some staff but at the same time it would require more employees because of the shorter working hours.

The increasing number of mainlanders coming to take advantage of our well-developed health care system will continue to put pressure on both public and private hospitals. Bringing in overseas doctors is the best way to fill the manpower gaps in the public sector.

The addition of a small number of overseas doctors will not affect the general interest of local private doctors. Moreover, doctors should always put patients' best interests first.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.