Hong Kong doctors should know that professional autonomy is a privilege, not an absolute right

Feng Chi-shun says some private doctors apparently need reminding that their (not democratically elected) governing council is required to serve the public interest

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 March, 2016, 10:45am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 March, 2016, 10:45am

Why would adding four more lay persons to the Medical Council destroy the autonomy of the medical profession, when it takes the total number of lay members to only eight, against the overwhelming majority of 24 medical members?

READ MORE: Medical Council reform needs to be part of a bigger cure for Hong Kong’s ailing health care system

The answer is in the semantics. According to the vociferous objectors of the latest government attempt to reform the council, only doctors who are “elected” to the council are the true guardians of professional autonomy; all the other doctors are “appointed” – hence, they are automatically in the government’s pocket.

The council wants professional autonomy, but what if it fails the public as a watchdog?

The council now comprises 28 members. There are four lay members appointed by the government. The Department of Health, the Academy of Medicine, the Hospital Authority and the two medical schools are each entitled to nominate two doctors. Semantically, they are not directly appointed by the government.

The Medical Association chooses seven, and all the registered doctors choose another seven. Most members in these two groups are private doctors, who have the illusion they are elected democratically; in truth, they are picked in “small-circle elections”.

Here’s the clincher – none of the members are elected by the public.

READ MORE: Hong Kong Medical Council reform may be a bitter pill for doctors to swallow, but it’s a necessary remedy

READ MORE: Appointment of more lay members to the Medical Council is a step in the right direction

The council wants professional autonomy, but what if it fails the public as a watchdog? Professional autonomy, though enshrined in the Basic Law, is a privilege, not an absolute right. It can be taken away if the profession fails to guard the public’s interest.

One major failure of our health care system is the acute shortage of doctors in public hospitals. The council has failed to take any measure to improve the situation, and the problem has been around for more than 10 years.

The much needed remedy is to take in more overseas doctors by removing some of the hurdles put up by the council

The much needed remedy is to take in more overseas doctors by removing some of the hurdles put up by the council, such as the difficult entry exam and the requirement of 12 months of internship regardless of a candidate’s qualifications.

Dr Choi Kin, a past Medical Association president, considers himself an “elected” member of the council, and a staunch supporter of professional autonomy. He brags about how, whenever the subject of foreign doctors was broached in council meetings, he would delay any decision by asking for more time to discuss the issue. When his request was turned down, he and his legion of “elected” members would walk out, thus sabotaging the quorum and any reform initiative.

Dr Choi needs to look the public in the eye and tell them that the reason they are not getting the best public health care is because he, as a representative of private doctors, doesn’t want to make it too easy for foreign doctors to come here.

Feng Chi-shun is a retired pathologist and author