‘Goodwill’ move to cut number of government appointees on Hong Kong Medical Council
City’s leader says concession will allow embattled reform bill on watchdog to be passed soon to address long-running problems in sector
The number of appointed members on a doctors’ watchdog in Hong Kong would be scaled back in a latest bid by the government to break the reform deadlock with medical practitioners, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said on Tuesday.
The Medical Council, which licenses and disciplines doctors in the city, has been criticised as a “closed shop” that tends to protect professionals in the field. It has also been panned for its slow handling of complaints.
A reform proposal over the number of members on the body – government-appointed and those elected by peers – has seen officials and stakeholders locked in heated debate.
Since June, the Legislative Council has been scrutinising the Medical Registration Bill, which seeks to increase the number of members on the Medical Council, from 28 to 32, to cut the waiting time for hearings on medical complaints from 58 to 30 months. The bill also covers changes to the ratio of appointed and elected members in the watchdog.
On Tuesday, speaking before the Executive Council meeting, Lam said the major disagreement between the government and the medical sector was on the number of representatives the Hong Kong Academy of Medicine, the body representing specialist doctors, should have among the 32 members.
One of the proposed plans under the reform was for two government-appointed seats from the academy to be converted into elected positions – voted by the academy – but only by its board members, who represent about 53 per cent of all doctors in the city.
“This plan was not accepted ... Efforts were then made by the secretary for food and health … and now we have largely reached a consensus that the academy will have four seats – two appointed by the government and two elected,” Lam said.
She did not specify if the elected positions would be opened to voting by only academy board members or all practitioners in the city.
To make way, the number of representatives from the Hospital Authority and the Department of Health would be slashed from two each to one each, Lam said, adding that she hoped the move would allow for the bill to be approved in Legco.
Medical sector lawmaker Dr Pierre Chan said there would be no filibustering on the bill this time as his group would accept the latest proposal “as a concession”.
“The plan was different from what we proposed, but doctors will make a concession as the sector has listened to public opinions and does not want the passing of the bill to be dragged further,” Chan said in a statement.
He stressed that the medical sector had never refused a reform of the watchdog, but he said it was important to insist on professional independence of the council in order to guarantee the standard of service.
According to sources, the Medical Association, the city’s largest doctors’ group, also agreed to accept the plan. The association had staged a sit-in against the previous reform bill.
Last year the government tried to push a similar bill through Legco, but it lapsed after filibustering by former medical sector lawmaker Dr Leung Ka-lau and pan-democrats, who claimed the bill would undermine the quality of the city’s medical system.
Meanwhile, Secretary for Food and Health professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee said the remarks by Lam were a show of goodwill by the government.
“I hope the academy can elect its representatives fairly and openly,” Chan said.
She added that she hoped the bill would be passed in Legco as the number of complaints against doctors were piling up.
The academy’s spokesman said it would consult members and collect opinions on adding two more seats under the latest proposal.
“Increasing the number of representatives from the academy can help ensure the standard of doctors’ training and [address] relevant issues in the Medical Council,” he said.
Tim Pang Hung-cheong from the Society for Community Organisation, an NGO, welcomed the latest bid, saying it balanced the interests of both patients and doctors.
He said the two extra members from the academy could also ensure medical standards and level of professionalism in the council.
“The organisation urges lawmakers from the medical sector to stop stalling the bill as it would further damage public trust in doctors,” Pang said in a statement.
Lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki, a doctor by profession, said there was still a lack of consensus over the latest bid despite the display of goodwill by the government.
Kwok said the two seats from the academy should be elected by all practising doctors in the city, rather than just by its board members.
The problems faced by the Medical Council came under the spotlight when singer Peter Cheung Shung-tak and his wife, former actress Eugina Lau Mei-kuen, spent at least a seven-digit sum in nine years in an uphill battle for justice over the death of their newborn son in 2005.
In 2014, the doctor involved in the case was eventually found guilty of professional misconduct.