High hopes for Hospital Authority's incoming chairman

John Leong's stellar leadership track record makes him a welcome choice as new chairman of the Hospital Authority

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 October, 2013, 5:33am

A lot is expected of Dr John Leong Chi-yan, but it is a testament to the esteem in which he is held by those familiar with his work.

Last Tuesday, it was announced that the Open University president would become the next Hospital Authority chairman. In the midst of a government where ministers, executive councillors and statutory board chiefs have come and gone amid controversy and dissenting voices, seldom has an appointment been so well received.

Leong, a doctor by profession, has a wealth of experience behind him across academia, medical practice and public administration, for which he has been showered with accolades. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that hopes run high that he will provide critical leadership for the authority as it stands at the juncture of much-needed reforms.

The 71-year-old will face a legion of challenges when he takes over in December from accountant Anthony Wu Ting-yuk in managing the city's multibillion-dollar public health sector. Among them are a manpower shortage, demands for improvements in management, and working out a medical financing option with the government.

On Tuesday, Leong laid out three major tasks for the authority - to provide world-class medical services, training young doctors to international standards, and an environment for clinical research and innovation.

"The most important thing is to get to the bottom of the problems," he said.

A government-appointed committee recently began reviewing the work of the authority, and will make recommendations. "I think the committee will be in the best position to find out where the shortcomings of the system are, and we'll try to deal with these as soon as possible," Leong said.

The veteran orthopaedic surgeon is no stranger to such challenges. Ten years ago, at age 60, he was appointed president of the problem-laden Open University. On his to-do list were to address a shrinking student population, insufficient campus space, and an unhealthy balance sheet.

Professor Danny Wong Shek-nam, vice-president (academic) of the university, said Leong made considerable breakthroughs in his time running the self-financing institution.

"He expanded the total size of the campus premises twice and boosted enrolment figures," Wong said.

With the introduction of full-time, face-to-face degree programmes, which were open to applicants via the Joint University Programmes Admissions System (Jupas), the student count under Leong's watch jumped from 200 to almost 7,000.

Leong, who is due to step down as Open University president in April, was equally impressive in his 38 years of service at the University of Hong Kong's faculty of medicine, where he was head of department for 23 years.

At 39, he was appointed the chair professor of HKU's orthopaedics department and head of Queen Mary Hospital's orthopaedics and traumatology unit. Four years later, he became HKU's youngest dean of the faculty of medicine. That record was surpassed only in May this year when Professor Gabriel Leung was appointed to the job at the age of 40.

Leong was also among the first batch of locals elected to be a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2001.

Over decades of teaching, he has groomed several well-known medical talents, including Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man.

Former Public Doctors' Association president Dr Ho Pak-leung, a HKU microbiologist, said he had a good impression of Leong as a teacher and later as a colleague. As one of Leong's students in the 1980s, Ho described him as a witty teacher eager to share his knowledge.

"He taught us orthopaedics and he was very good at it. Students enjoyed his lessons. I usually skipped lessons by those who didn't teach well, but I didn't skip his," he joked.

Later, Leong became director of the university's school of postgraduate medical education and training, where Ho was in charge of one of the courses. Leong did a good job promoting the programmes and improved relationships with students, using various methods to collect students' opinions, Ho said.

"He was progressive and open. In meetings with him, you would feel that you could express your views," he said.

In reference to possible weaknesses Leong may possess in taking on the challenges of his new position, Ho said Leong had been out of the public medical sector for a decade and may be unfamiliar with recent developments.

Lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki, another of Leong's students in the 1980s, said Leong was not a reformer. He did not expect him to bring a fresh outlook to the authority, but saw him as a safe choice for the government.

"He doesn't have any political affiliation, his personal character is not marked, and he has a low profile. There has been little controversy over his appointment," he said.

Although Leong's appointment has been well received, some have questioned whether his age would be a drawback.

But Wu said that was a sentiment expressed only by people who did not know Leong.

"John is very fit and energetic. He walks faster than me," Wu, who is 59, said.

Born into a family of doctors, Leong's curriculum vitae is no less stellar than that of his father Leong Kam-leng, a doctor in the 1930s, and elder brother Dr Leong Che-hung, who previously headed the Hospital Authority.

Brother Che-hung, who is 74, said his sibling was in good shape. "I have never heard of him encountering any health issue," he said.

Professor Joseph Lee Kok-long, who is head of the Open University's nursing department and legislator for the health services functional constituency, said Leong had a "dapper boy" image.

Comparing him with the incumbent Wu, who he described as always wearing a cheery face, Lee said: "Leong may need to smile more."


John Leong Chi-yan

Age 71

Family Wife Annie Hsu On-pok, two sons
Elder brother Dr Leong Che-hung

Education St Joseph's College
University of Hong Kong Faculty of Medicine

1981 Chair Professor and Head of Department, HKU Faculty of Medicine
1985 Dean and Director of the School of Postgraduate Medical Education and Training, HKU Faculty of Medicine
2003 President, Open University
2013 Chairman, Hospital Authority

2001 Academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences
2009 Silver Bauhinia Star
2011 Doctor of Science, Honorary Graduate, HKU