Hong Kong faces ‘serious’ lack of health care workers

Source says study recommends tripling number of foreign-trained doctors

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 January, 2017, 9:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 January, 2017, 9:01am

The first government study on health care manpower has found that most of the 13 medical professions in the city – including doctors, nurses and dentists – will face shortages in the next 10 years, the Post has learned.

But there would be a rare surplus of pharmacists, which would allow the profession to develop a larger role in place of the deficiencies, a government source said.

The projection report, due to be released in the first half of the year, looked at the demand for medical professions such as doctors, nurses, and dentists in the context of a rapidly ageing population and new hospitals being planned.

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“In general, there are shortages in almost all health care professions in the city,” the source said. “The review is the first of its kind, aiming to find a trend in the serious shortage and make recommendations on manpower planning and professional development.”

The most severe scarcity – a shortfall of hundreds – was expected for doctors.

A solution recommended by the report was to increase the number of overseas-qualified doctors working in public hospitals under limited registrations.

Public hospitals are currently allowed to recruit foreign doctors under a one-year limited registration scheme. Due to stringent conditions that restrict them from working in the private sector, only 12 foreigners joined the scheme last year, with five more approved to join this month.

The source said the number must be at least tripled in order to be “helpful” in resolving the problem, adding that the contract might be extended to three years to attract more doctors.

The government would not rule out increasing the annual intake of medical students, according to the source.

Furthermore, the drafting of a controversial bill is expected in the first half of this year to reform the Medical Council, a watchdog and statutory body that also grants licences to foreign doctors.

The proposal faced huge opposition last year from doctors who were concerned about the lack of consultation.

There were also fears the move was a way for the government to control the council, and that licensing requirements for foreign and mainland doctors would be relaxed, thereby compromising standards.

But public hospitals in the city, which oversee some 90 per cent of inpatients, are already facing a chronic shortage of health care workers. According to public hospital records, there is a shortage of 250 doctors at any one time. Last year, there was also a shortage of 700 nurses.

During the winter demand surge, it is not uncommon for patients in non-emergency cases to complain that they have to wait for up to seven hours for medical treatment, and up to 20 hours to be moved to a general ward.

If the manpower issue is not resolved, waiting times are expected to worsen amid increasing demand, despite a HK$200 billion plan to build and redevelop public hospitals in the next decade.

But the source said the problem could be “manageable” with effective measures in place, such as increasing the annual intake of students in the two medical schools from 250 to 470 by 2019.