Discord lands Hong Kong’s health care accreditation plan in disarray

Despite the discord, the government remains hopeful that at least one or two of the professions, especially those with the least arguments, can be the first batch to gain accreditation by the end of this year

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 February, 2017, 7:03am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 February, 2017, 7:02am

Hong Kong’s attempt to self regulate 15 types of heath care providers has had an ignominious start, as the key aspect of a three-year pilot scheme exposed infighting among practitioners over who should be given due recognition and accreditation.

The Department of Health introduced a voluntary accreditation scheme last October to give consumers an easy set of industry standards for verifying the qualifications of non-medical and non-pharmaceutical health care therapists.

Four months on, the scheme is in disarray, with clinical psychologists and dieticians arguing that other practitioners lack adequate training, and shouldn’t even be admitted into the voluntary accreditation scheme.

Hong Kong’s government is reluctant to wade into the arguments or impose a common standard over concern of interfering with professional autonomy, a source at the Food & Health Bureau told the South China Morning Post.

Still, the hands-off approach gives free rein to a multibillion dollar industry, where public lives are at stake. Last year, a Causeway Bay health salon was shut after seven cancer patients claimed they were filched of HK$5 million to receive oxygen and magnetic therapy. Two of those patients succumbed to their cancer.

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The Hong Kong Psychological Society, a non-statutory body that oversees the profession, said it couldn’t recognise 300 graduates of the City University’s School of Continuing and Professional Education (SCOPE) as their training was “questionable.” Currently, most accredited psychologists are graduates of the University of Hong Kong, Chinese University, or other recognised overseas universities.

The four-year SCOPE course, operated separately from the university, costs HK$500,000 per student for a part time course in the Doctor of Philosophy.

The program doesn’t provide enough clinical training, and doesn’t place interns under the supervision of qualified psychologists, said Dr Charles Pau Wai-ho, vice-chairman of the society.

That’s contested by SCOPE’s spokesman, saying the program includes 600 hours of practical experience, and a minimum of 2,000 hours of internship, of which 800 hours involve treatment sessions with patients under the supervision by licensed clinical psychologists.

Hong Kong Association of Doctors in Clinical Psychology, formed by around 50 of the CityU’s SCOPE graduates, said in a statement to the Legislative Council that they should be given equally recognition and accreditation. However, the association’s listed phone number wasn’t operational.

The lack of consensus among psychologists means the entire profession can’t be accredited under the pilot scheme, “leaving the public without a way to tell whether their psychologist” is in fact qualified or accredited, Pau said.

Instead of a voluntary scheme, a statutory body should accredit the sector, said Dr Kitty Wu Kit-ying, chairperson of the Psychological Society’s accreditation subcommittee.

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That means psychologists can be regulated the same way as doctors and nurses – making it a crime for any unregistered practitioner to claim to be a clinical psychologist.

Disputes are also taking place among dietitians and nutritionists, with the Dietitians Association chairwoman Sylvia Lam See-way arguing that nutritionists shouldn’t be accredited.

Consumers often confuse the two professions, but only dietitians are professionally trained to treat diet-related issues such as eating disorders, she said.

Similar discord is taking place between pharmacists and dispensers, where the latter profession isn’t allowed to prescribe drugs.

The government could play a more active role by forming an independent panel with international experts to help establish a standard of practise for these sectors, or to implement an open examinations to ensure their qualification, said Dr Kwok Ka-ki, a lawmaker in the Legislative Council who represented the medical functional constituency until 2008.

Despite the arguments, the government remains hopeful that at least one or two of the professions, especially those with the least arguments, can be the first batch to gain accreditation by the end of this year, the Food & Health Bureau source said.

With additional reporting by Peace Chiu