Solving Hong Kong's doctor dilemma

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 October, 2013, 12:05am

Hong Kong's public health system is the envy of many countries for its quality, affordability and effective universal coverage. But in competition with a vibrant private medical sector, one of the challenges in maintaining this reputation is to overcome a chronic shortage of doctors. While 60 per cent of our doctors work in private practice, public hospitals that treat 90 per cent of patients are short of about 200 doctors. More students at our two medical schools will not result in more doctors for years. It is good, therefore, that the Medical Council is to double the number of licensing exams it holds each year - from one to two - for the rising number of non-local medical graduates who want to gain Hong Kong qualifications and serve for a time at least in the public hospital system.

That, however, will not make a big dent in the shortage. While the number of non-locals sitting the Hong Kong licensing examination has risen from 168 in 2010 to 283 this year, the pass rate remains at only 10 per cent, with just 23 gaining licences last year. This would seem either to reflect badly on the quality of medical education elsewhere or suggest that Hong Kong is setting the bar very high. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between. Candidates are assessed in one examination on five years of study undertaken some time ago, as opposed to annual or even more frequent tests of knowledge as they studied. As a result, more recent graduates tend to remember more and do better. That raises the question of how many respected local practitioners and specialists who graduated years ago could pass a similar test now covering all their study.

The medical establishment has been criticised for frustrating the government's efforts to meet the shortage with overseas-trained doctors by refusing to relax entry standards. The Medical Council should be commended, however, for trying to attract more candidates by holding an extra exam and looking at waiving certain parts of it for those with relevant experience or qualifications.