Foreigners step in to ease hospital strain

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 January, 2012, 12:00am

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Despite concerns about language barriers, foreign radiographers are settling in at hospitals in remote city areas, helping to ease the pain of an overburdened public health service.

'We're happy to have them fill the gaps,' said Derek Kwan, senior radiographer at Pok Oi Hospital in Yuen Long, one of the areas hardest hit by a steady loss of medical staff into the more lucrative and conveniently-located private sector.

The New Territories West group of public hospitals, which includes Tuen Mun and Pok Oi, had 15 vacancies for radiographers at the height of the staff shortage in April last year.

Five overseas recruits and five local people were hired in the autumn. Their arrival helped stem the shortage in an area with a growing population, and a high cancer rate and long-term diseases such as diabetes that require radiology scans, said Kwan.

But a person must wait seven years to see a radiographer for a routine check-up, compared with a two- to three-year wait just two years earlier. A patient who needs a non-urgent MRI must now wait until 2019.

Radiographers are the technicians who provide images of the body that doctors need to make diagnoses.

Their shortage is part of a greater trend of doctors leaving the public sector for the growing private arena.

'More people have insurance coverage and are capable of paying for private sector services, rather than waiting in long queues. Their diseases are diagnosed faster in the private sector, and the prices are no longer alarmingly expensive,' said Kwan. A typical MRI scan costs HK$4,000 or so, he said.

While more radiographers have helped ease the hospital's burden, it still faces a shortage of radiologists, the specialist doctors who make the diagnoses. Without more of them, extra radiographers would not make such a dent on the number of patients waiting to be seen, said Kwan.

But the idea of bringing in more overseas doctors raises hackles with opponents, who say such an influx would reduce the quality of services.

Many doctors were unwilling to speak candidly about this, said one medical professional who declined to be named. 'But to be honest, I see interns fresh out of school practising in these hospitals. I don't see how they're better than a more experienced doctor from, say, India.'

Overseas doctors must sit a re-qualification exam and jump through other hurdles to be granted a partial licence to practise in the city. Last year only nine got a licence.

The requirements are less stringent for radiographers, as degrees from specific colleges are considered equal to a Hong Kong degree. Recruits say they have had no big problems with their basic Cantonese.

'We don't have to learn the complex medical terms, just things like lift your arm, all the pleasantries, the cultural things.' said Hannah Wong, a half-Chinese, half-Finnish recruit from London South Bank University.