Medical Council could face major surgery as government plans reforms

Plans to cut waiting times for complainants by boosting assessment panel with 'lay people' are heading to the Legislative Council for approval

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 July, 2014, 2:50pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 July, 2014, 5:01am

The Medical Council faces major surgery after a highly publicised case in which a celebrity couple whose newborn baby died waited nine years before their doctor was declared guilty of professional misconduct.

The government plans to seek lawmakers' approval this year for reforms to the statutory watchdog that include an increase in the number of people on its panel of assessors.

The changes, the first to be made to the council in a decade, are aimed at cutting the time patients must wait to have their complaints against medical professionals heard.

Council chairman Professor Joseph Lau Wan-yee has said that up to 10 months could be cut from the average waiting time of 38 to 40 months it takes a case to arrive at the hearing stage.

Shortcomings in the complaints system were highlighted by the long delay experienced by singer Peter Cheung Shung-tak and former actress Eugina Lau Mei-kuen after the death of their baby son in 2005.

A Food and Health Bureau source said the planned reforms included an increase from four to 14 in lay people on the council's panel of assessors, in an effort to share the workload.

"The government has approved the reform proposal submitted by the Medical Council in principle," the source said, adding that the details were now being finalised.

The source believed the changes would enable the watchdog to open two hearings at the same time.

The government was keen to make progress on reforms, the source said, amid public condemnation of the watchdog for being overly protective of doctors and ineffective in protecting patients' rights.

The government aims to table the reform proposal to the Legislative Council within the year, but the source said it was not clear how long the bill would take to pass as "there are always hold-ups and filibusters in Legco".

Lau has already advocated extra lay members on the assessment panel, saying it would improve accountability as well as speed up the disciplinary process.

Former council chairwoman Felice Lieh Mak said many people from a variety of sectors would be interested in joining the council.

"They see it as a very challenging duty," she said.

She suggested that interested people who met the requirements - such as being a degree holder - should submit their details to the council's secretariat, which would then refer applications to the Food and Health Bureau.

The bureau would screen candidates before making recommendations to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying on the appointments, she said.

The source added that the government welcomed members from professions such as accounting, social work or the law to join as lay members.

Patients' Rights Association spokesman Tim Pang Hung-cheong described the planned reforms as long overdue. He said the council needed to address its shortcomings and restore public confidence.

Long waits for hearings were just one problem complainants faced, Pang said.

They were also often asked to submit technical documents which most patients struggled to obtain.

The council first submitted a reform proposal to the government in 2002 - to double the number of lay members. No progress has been made on that for more than a decade.