Reform of Hong Kong's Medical Council is a must

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 October, 2015, 1:34am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 October, 2015, 1:34am

When a self-regulatory watchdog takes years to handle complaints about professional misconduct, and redress is sought through the courts instead, there have to be questions about the way the body operates. This "lamentable state of affairs", as described by a High Court judge in his ruling against the decision by the Medical Council to dismiss a complaint, does nothing to enhance confidence.

Mr Justice Kevin Zervos has ordered the council to review a complaint against paediatrician Dr Alvin Chan Yee-shing, who was accused of causing a 14-month-old infant's finger to be amputated in 2009. A complaint filed with the council the following year was dismissed in 2012. The family filed a second complaint in 2013, but was not told it had been dismissed again until this year. In a strongly worded ruling, Justice Zervos said the "protracted and cumbersome" process was due to inadequate administrative support and personnel handling complaints on a voluntary basis. He also expressed surprise over the lack of guidelines to guard against conflict of interest when handling complaints.

This is not the first time the council's operations have come under scrutiny. Last year the need for reform was underlined by a nine-year fight for justice by a showbusiness couple over the death of a newborn. Regrettably, no progress has been made. The latest example should give fresh impetus for an overhaul.

Like many other self-regulating bodies, the Medical Council is responsible for doctors' registration and professional conduct. But the slow handling of complaints and the lack of public representation in the disciplinary procedures give the impression that doctors' interests are placed before patients'.

With 500 to 700 complaints each year, of which 22 on average result in disciplinary hearings, the process may not be as quick as one would like. The committee chair says complaints should be handled cautiously, as they involve doctors' reputations. He should be reminded that it is also patients' right to seek redress in case of misconduct and professional misjudgment. As the court ruled, the process was unduly long. We trust it does not take another court challenge to establish the urgency of reform. At stake is the trust between patients and doctors. If the profession continues to resist pressure for a more credible complaint mechanism, the government should not hesitate to intervene.