Update Medical Council to include more lay members

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 June, 2014, 5:27am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 June, 2014, 9:10am

The Medical Council has come under critical scrutiny in its role as a gatekeeper of complaints against Hong Kong doctors. Of about 500 complaints received each year, an average of 22 result in disciplinary hearings, usually after a long wait. Now, a high-profile couple's nine-year wait for justice over the death of their newborn son has focused attention on the council's performance. A patients' rights group says the couple's experience fits a pattern that does nothing for public confidence in the self-regulatory body responsible for the licensing, monitoring and disciplining of doctors.

An obstetrician was finally banned for two years over the death of the one-day-old baby of singer Peter Cheung Shung-tak and his wife, former actress Eugina Lau Mei-kuen.

To be fair, the council itself has proposed reforms in the past to improve access to justice for complainants, but they have been sidelined by opposition from some private doctors and lawmakers.

An outdated structure and lack of resources are contributing factors to unsatisfactory performance. To address them, the council has now proposed to the government that two panels hear complaints to speed up the procedure.

It is good to hear from Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man that this idea warrants serious consideration, along with the council's suggestion - first raised 12 years ago - that the number of its lay members be increased. The latter is essential if it is to raise its work rate. The law requires that a lay member join investigations and disciplinary hearings. The council has only four of them, out of 28 members, and unavailability already slows inquiries. The government may fund the council and, as the employer of public hospital doctors, nominate half its members. But this raises questions about independence.

Half the members of Britain's medical council, for example, are lay people. A more equal division between lay and professional members would be seen to better serve the principle of independence - and the public interest.