• Sat
  • Dec 20, 2014
  • Updated: 8:14pm
Column
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 February, 2014, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 14 February, 2014, 1:54am

Hong Kong's medical lobby must put public good ahead of private interest

Albert Cheng says the shortage of public-sector doctors cannot be resolved until there's a level playing field for those trained overseas

BIO

Ir. Albert Cheng is the founder of Digital Broadcasting Corporation Hong Kong Limited, a current affairs commentator and columnist. He was formerly a direct elected Hong Kong SAR Legislative Councillor. Mr Cheng was voted by Time Magazine in 1997 as one of "the 25 most influential people in new Hong Kong" and selected by Business Week in 1998 as one of "the 50 stars of Asia".  
 

It's a well-known fact that local public hospitals have a serious shortage of doctors. We currently have about 5,100 doctors serving at public hospitals, but they have to handle 20 million consultations per year.

With this unimaginable workload, a lack of resources, and poor working conditions, coupled with a rising demand in private hospitals due to a continuing influx of mainlanders, it's understandable that more and more public hospital doctors are migrating to the much better paid private sector.

The authority is reportedly now short of about 300 doctors, some 6 per cent of its total workforce. And just over a week ago, it was reported that the city's 15 major accident and emergency departments are struggling to meet their targets for urgent care because of a shortage of doctors.

To tackle this severe shortage, some academics and doctors have suggested that the government should require newly qualified doctors to first serve in the public health system for a designated period before being allowed to work in the private sector.

On the surface, this is a reasonable proposal to help resolve the manpower shortage in public hospitals. But, really, it's a veiled attempt by private doctors to protect their vested interests.

In reality, they are reluctant to have more doctors joining the private sector and taking a share of their interests. They want to continue with their monopoly by minimising competition from newcomers.

In fact, the Hospital Authority has taken a range of emergency measures to address the manpower issue, such as hiring retired private doctors and recruiting overseas doctors with limited registration.

Foreign doctors hired under this condition are required to pass local professional exams to qualify for local practice and can only work in public hospitals. This proposal has been vehemently attacked by private doctors.

The Medical Council of Hong Kong sets qualifying exams for local practice that make it difficult for foreign doctors to work here. The whole idea is to limit the number of overseas-trained doctors joining the local medical sector.

Obviously, with this kind of mentality, there is no way we can resolve the perennial shortage. On the other hand, the shortage serves to increase the demand for private doctors.

From 1997 to 2011, the Medical Council only issued some 150 licences to allow overseas-trained doctors to practise here. It's unbelievable and totally illogical that the number should be so low.

Our local medical landscape is operated by a monopoly and our medical professionals are all treated as kings and queens, highly regarded in society. This is, of course, a fact of life.

But we shouldn't forget that the public foots the bill for our locally trained doctors. The government has to invest millions to nurture our medical students, which is a costly public investment.

Doctors can, of course, protect their professional interests, but while doing so they can also give back to society and strike a balance between self and public interests.

During the colonial era, all doctors from the Commonwealth and those trained in those regions were automatically allowed to work here.

After the handover, the rule was changed in order to unify the system requiring all overseas doctors to pass local exams before allowing them to practise here.

The qualifying entrance exam for overseas doctors is a sound practice only if its level of assessment is the same as that used to qualify local doctors. But what we see is an utterly unfair system designed to exclude foreign talent, which in the end will hurt the general public.

Our standard of medical services is quite high, but the overall standards in other Western countries, such as the US and Britain, are definitely not inferior, which explains why our medical professionals customarily choose to further their studies overseas.

What about those Hongkongers who are forced to study medicine overseas because of a shortage of university places here? Would they be considered outsiders and forced to go through the same prejudicial exam treatment before being allowed to come home and work here?

We shouldn't turn a blind eye and allow a small group of people to manipulate the situation in the medical sector for personal gain.

We shouldn't tolerate a professional monopoly that hurts public interests and endangers public health and safety.

We must salute all public doctors who insist on staying on to serve the public despite the harsh working conditions. Their commitment and sacrifice should be recognised and their pay and working conditions should be improved accordingly.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk

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honger
"What about those Hongkongers who are forced to study medicine overseas because of a shortage of university places here? Would they be considered outsiders and forced to go through the same prejudicial exam treatment before being allowed to come home and work here?"
Amongst those studying overseas are the brightest of the bright in HK - there are many Hongkongers studying medicine in the Russell Group, some in Oxbridge as well. In fact, it is easier ot get into the HKU or CU med school as compared to in the Russell Group or in the US. Ditto for those foreign graduates applying from other Commonwealth countries - NUS (National University of Singapore), for example, has a higher ranking than the med schools of HKU or CU.
It is time the govt stop feeding the greed of a very select few. We are talking about lives hanging on the balance as a resut of the high workload in public hospitals and the astronomical private fees charged, resulting in delayed or inferior treatment (in private hospitals as well) as a result of the shortage. Instead of repaying taxpayers who heavily subsidised their education, these local medical graduates now enforces a ruthless stranglehold on their services motivated primairly by monetary gains. What ingrates!
Will.I.Am
This is the only time I whole heartedly agrees with Cheng!
SpeakFreely
Crazy system. I was wondering say how a 20 years experience heart surgeon from UK or US can pass a written exam after left school for 20 years but they are for sure much better than a local grad with zero years of experience! right? There is no doubt local medical professional is building a protection. Remember a couple of years ago they were those who never stop the mainland mom because they were making so much! I would say most hk doctors are reactively lousy as they normally spend virtually no time with patient.
 
 
 
 
 

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