Patient and doctor groups welcome U-turn on promoting private care

Groups say medicine should never have been seen as economic pillar, and hail focus on locals

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 September, 2012, 2:28am

The government's decision to stop pursuing private health care as a "new pillar" of economic growth is a step towards reform, say patients' and doctors' groups.

Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man announced the change yesterday in his first news conference since taking office, saying private hospitals should gear their services towards locals instead of overseas patients, and help to ease the burden on public hospitals.

Tim Pang Hung-cheong, spokesman for the Patients' Rights Association, welcomed the move, saying health care should have never been a pillar industry "as it means the government encourages [it] to become a money-making business".

"This contradicts the spirit of life-saving service," he said.

During the 2008 financial crisis, former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen earmarked medical services as a key industry that could be developed to boost the city's long-term growth. But the Patients' Rights Association and the Hong Kong Medical Association (HKMA) agreed it was time to change course.

Ko said that after years of private health care being cornered by mainland patients, it was time to make more private hospital beds available for Hongkongers. But the minister's announcement has caused concern that giving private hospitals a larger role in meeting local needs would result in a brain drain from public hospitals, as medical staff seek the same training for higher pay.

Ko said public hospitals had been using various measures to retain talent and improve efficiency, such as cutting patients' waiting times.

Still, statistics show an imbalance, with public hospitals serving 90 per cent of the city's population, while 60 per cent of doctors work in the private sector.

HKMA president Dr Tse Hung-hing, a medical sector candidate in this Sunday's Legislative Council election, said he understood it might be difficult on ethical grounds for private hospital operators to turn away overseas patients so as to prioritise local ones.

Tse said he had never understood why the government highlighted private medical services as an industry.

Incumbent lawmaker Dr Leung Ka-lau, also a Legco candidate, said that aside from obstetric wards, private medical services were more than enough to meet demand and should be made available for foreigners if there was low local demand.

The Private Hospital Association said it would meet Ko this week to further understand his proposals.