Private doctors are staunch advocates of free enterprise and choice. They are also formidable keepers of a closed shop, under the banner of upholding medical standards. The result is that although 60 per cent of our doctors work in private practice, public hospitals that treat up to 90 per cent of patients are now short about 200 doctors. The medical establishment has largely frustrated the Hospital Authority's efforts to recruit foreign-trained doctors to relieve the shortage.
The mismatch of resources is the principal focus of a report by a task force of British academic and National Health Service experts engaged to advise on the authority's clinical governance. They said it must ease the restrictions on overseas recruitment because the staffing crisis posed a threat to patient safety.
This is surely enough to convince most lay people that recruitment restrictions must be eased without prejudicing patient welfare more than the staffing crisis itself. But is was not enough for the Frontline Doctors' Union, which says there are many things the authority can do before opening non-local employment.
Hong Kong is not the only place trying to maintain first-rate health care in the face of a doctor shortage, and its doctors are not alone in protecting their turf after years of study and training. They should, therefore, look to comparable professional jurisdictions at least to enable overseas-trained Hong Kong citizens to practise here without facing unduly restrictive licensing examinations. Australia, for example, simply requires graduates to complete their internship, the final part of their training, in Australia to gain full registration.
For the sake of patients and the reputation of our health system, it is time for the Medical Council, which is responsible for regulating the profession, local doctor groups, the Hospital Authority and the government to reconcile their differences. Failing that, the government should exercise authority and leadership in the interests of patients.