I'm ready for my next patient: the mainland, says departing hospital chief

Outgoing Hospital Authority chief has seen Hong Kong declared world's most efficient health care system, now he has set himself a new mission

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 October, 2013, 4:53am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 October, 2013, 11:01am

The outgoing Hospital Authority chairman does not have an easy retirement in mind after nine years heading Hong Kong's public health care service. He intends to devote himself to medical reform on the mainland and to promoting traditional Chinese medicine to the world.

Anthony Wu Ting-yuk, is stepping down next month - a month that will also see him celebrate his 60th birthday.

"The livelihood issue is a key aspect in the development of [mainland] China," Wu told the South China Morning Post. "I hope I can put more time and effort into [its] health care reform."

He believed the mainland's medical system could learn from the Hong Kong experience.

"But China is very big; there will not be a one-size-fits-all solution to the diversity of problems it faces," he said. "It will take time."

Wu has been leading the public medical sector since 2004, and also serves as a Beijing-appointed adviser to the National Health and Family Planning Commission and principal adviser to the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Open University president John Leong Chi-yan will step into his shoes as Hospital Authority chairman from December.

An accountant by training, Wu said he was pleased to see the city's public hospital services receive international praise and recognition. Hong Kong was ranked as having the world's most efficient health care system by Bloomberg earlier this year.

But it was not perfect, he admitted. Patients had to put up with long waiting times and the city had a chronic lack of doctors. "One of my greatest regrets is being unable to solve the problem of understaffing at public hospitals during my term. It saddens me to see how hard employees have to work."

He let out a sigh, before adding: "I have tried every possible way. But the problem is out of my hands."

The city is short of more than 200 public-sector doctors. The problem will not begin to ease until 2015, when the number of graduate doctors should rise from 250 a year to about 400.

According to the Migration and Remittances Factbook 2011 published by the World Bank, some 3,833 physicians who had been trained in Hong Kong - 30.4 per cent - had migrated to other countries as of 2000.

With his term coming to an end, Wu dared to reiterate his belief in introducing more "flexibility" to attract some of those doctors back from overseas.

This group of people should be at the top of the recruitment list for public hospitals, he said.

"If public hospitals lack 30 doctors for their accident and emergency units, why should there not be a way to let 30 overseas doctors fill in?" he asked.

The system for importing doctors "still has room" for improvement, he said.

A similar suggestion Wu raised in 2011 triggered a major crisis in his career at the authority. The Medical Council and frontline doctors demanded his resignation after he suggested qualified doctors from overseas should be permitted to practise in Hong Kong without having to sit the licensing examinations.

Doctors Union president Henry Yeung Chiu-fat said at the time that there were concerns about standards of care as doctors from abroad tried to adapt to the city. Language proficiency raised particular concerns.

"I did not expect [doctors to react so strongly]," Wu said. "I really believe that importing overseas doctors can truly help public hospitals."