Pan-democrat lawmakers should back Hong Kong Medical Council reform

Albert Cheng says the critical need to change the governing body’s make-up, to make it more transparent and accountable, should outweigh lawmakers’ distrust of Leung Chun-ying

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 March, 2016, 4:51pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 March, 2016, 4:51pm

The Legislative Council is processing a long-overdue proposal to reform the governing body of the medical profession. However, the move to introduce more lay members into the Medical Council is now in jeopardy as doctors gear up their campaign to scupper the plan.

Hong Kong doctors threaten strike if government pushes reform plan for medical watchdog

The Medical Registration (Amendment) Bill 2016 was introduced into Legco on March 2. An unusually large number of legislators – 31 – have signed up for the working group to scrutinise the draft.

If united, the pan-democrats can bring the administration to its knees

Discounting the now aborted Copyright (Amendment) Bill, the assembly is still juggling with more than 20 legislative proposals. These draft laws will lapse if they fail to get enacted before this term of the legislature is dissolved in July. Any unfinished business will have to start afresh after a new council is assembled in October. The backlog is a result of pan-democratic filibustering, which was aimed at foiling the government’s proposal to update the copyright regime. The 27 members in the opposition hold a significant majority in the 70-seat legislature. If united, they can bring the administration to its knees.

The Medical Council is empowered to administer the registration of medical doctors to practise in Hong Kong. In recent years, however, its handling of several high-profile cases of medical misconduct has led to perceptions that it is more interested in protecting its peers than in acting as a public watchdog. The government is now leading the effort to reform it.

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

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

The council consists of 28 members, only four of whom are lay members. The bill seeks, among other purposes, to increase lay participation by entrusting the chief executive to name four more members from outside the medical circle. The chief executive is also responsible for the appointment of 10 of the medical practitioner members nominated by the Department of Health, the University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University, the Hospital Authority and the Hong Kong Academy of Medicine.

The high-handed way in which Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying hand-picked Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung as chairman of the HKU council has raised a lot of eyebrows. The recent shake-up at the Independent Police Complaints Council, whose members are all appointed by Leung, has become an additional source of concern.

Many doctors are jittery about the prospect of Leung having the final say on over half of the appointments to their ruling council. The bone of contention boils down to public distrust of Leung.

The 96-year-old Medical Association is the main engine behind the campaign against the bill. Médecins Inspirés, a pro-democracy group of young medical practitioners who banded together during Occupy Central, has also jumped on the bandwagon.

They are particularly concerned that the Leung administration would force open the door for doctors overseas, especially those from mainland China, as a quick fix for the chronic problem of manpower shortages in public hospitals.

They insist that the profession be allowed to elect two more of its own to the council, so that the final equilibrium of “government” to “profession” members be maintained at least at one to one.

Instead of dancing to the tune of sectorial interests, the party should act for the public good

The medical lobby has already succeeded in swaying the Democratic Party. The party had initially given its nod to proposed amendments, but has now concluded that Leung should not be trusted. The Democrats command a critical minority of six votes in the legislature. A change of mind on their part may well derail the bill.

Instead of dancing to the tune of sectorial interests, the party should act for the public good. Some legislators may see the bill as a godsend to further undermine Leung’s credibility ahead of the Legco election in September. Yet, as legislators, they must not lose sight of the fact that the reform package on the table is a necessary first step towards making the Medical Council more transparent and accountable.

Should the bill fail to pass, the medical profession will have missed a timely opportunity to salvage its waning integrity in the eyes of the people.

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