Doctors in private practice care little for the interests of the general public

Albert Cheng criticises Medical Association's reluctance to support a plan to ease requirements for overseas doctors to practise here

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 July, 2014, 6:23pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 July, 2014, 12:30am

Over the years, doctors in local private practice have built up an empire of their own. The Hong Kong Medical Association, which claims a membership of 8,500, has taken a self-centred approach to guard its narrow sectoral interests at the expense of those of the general public.

Its latest attempt to make things difficult for overseas doctors to serve in the city is a case in point.

Anyone who has anything to do with our public hospitals can testify to the shortage of medical staff. As our population ages, the public health care system may very soon be so short of people that it is unable to sustain a reasonable level of care for patients.

The profession's governing body, the Medical Council, is currently considering ways to introduce qualified doctors from abroad as a relief measure.

It set out its recommendations in late May, proposing to exempt overseas practitioners with six years' post-registration experience and those at a level equivalent to a specialist from the local licensing exams. The current requirement is 10 years.

The council also wants to reduce the 12-month internship requirement for overseas recruits in certain specialities to six months. These options are far from drastic. They are gradual and incremental.

In response, the Medical Association recently sent out a biased questionnaire to its members ahead of negotiations with the council on the issue. Their members' responses are meant to increase the association's bargaining chips to shape the council's final decision.

The short survey came with a circular explaining why the association found the council's suggestions undesirable. It specifically complained about the lack of reciprocal preferential treatment for local doctors in other jurisdictions.

It said: "It is obvious that by such exemption, [the council] has given up the right of reciprocal recognition … We are granting exemptions for overseas qualification … when we are not receiving reciprocal exemptions. We are opening the gate without considering the drawbacks."

Hong Kong is not alone in its problem of an undersupply of physicians. Our neighbours, such as Singapore, have also been trying to recruit overseas talent. If we are to insist on reciprocity, the plan to admit more overseas doctors may end up as a non-starter.

Instead of focusing on how to solve the shortage, those at the helm of the Medical Association are apparently more concerned about how they can profit from the situation.

What is even more troubling is the association's tactics of fanning nationalist sentiment.

The circular read: "When the administration tried to remove all stains of the British colonial era, when the pro-government forces pounded the youngsters carrying the colonial flag, powerful people brought up British Commonwealth doctors and announced that they are good and should get an exemption."

It named Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, former executive councillor Franklin Lam Fan-keung, former secretary for the civil service Joseph Wong Wing-ping and me among those who support the exemption of British Commonwealth doctors from the licensing exam, thereby suggesting that we are in some way trying to revive British interests here.

This is insulting.

My position is clear and straightforward. The government should break the virtual monopoly in the local medical profession.

Overseas doctors should be allowed to practise in Hong Kong as long as they meet the professional standards. Whether the doctors to be imported are from within or outside the British Commonwealth is irrelevant.

I accept that such expatriates might need to sit for the local authority's licensing exams before they are allowed to treat patients here. This, however, must not be overdone.

Meanwhile, these qualifying exams should be conducted more often. Instead of once a year, such exams should be conducted at least once every season, if not monthly.

If a doctor qualified elsewhere is willing to serve in a public hospital for three years, the exams should be waived. This would create a better balance between the public and private sectors.

The Medical Association's attempt to hit below the belt is not unexpected. It is not a secret that many in the association's leadership, including its president, Dr Tse Hung-hing, and vice-president, Dr Chow Pak-chin, are supporters of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

Like the Leung administration, they are playing a dangerous political game of inciting feelings against so-called foreign influences.

A selfish person sometimes gets what he wants but, more often, he gets what he deserves. It remains to be seen whether the association can get its way.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.