The lifting of a doctors' advertising ban will lower health-care costs and advance medical technology, the head of a private hospital that initiated the three-year legal battle has said.
Walton Li Wai-tat, the medical superintendent of the Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital who supported the two-year lawsuit filed by the hospital's deputy medical superintendent, Kwong Kwok-hay, against the Medical Council, said he was 'finally relieved' by the landmark court ruling.
On January 24, a three-judge panel from the Court of Appeal rejected the council's appeal against a Court of First Instance ruling that restrictions on advertising by the medical profession were unconstitutional. The hospital has to bear most of the legal costs for Dr Kwong's suit.
The Medical Council has decided not to appeal against this ruling and will modify the doctors' professional code of conduct and issue rules over which publications doctors may advertise in.
The hospital launched its fight in 2005 after the Medical Council found two of its consultants guilty of promoting their 'reputation and experience' in a magazine article.
Dr Li and five other eye doctors from the hospital were also charged for advertising with inaccurate information and for claiming to offer better services than their peers.
Dr Li appeared alongside other doctors in a photograph carried in an advertisement titled 'A Team for Lasik', which appeared in 2005 in a Chinese magazine.
The hospital then hired British experts to study whether the Medical Council's code of conduct, which bans advertising, suppressed freedom of expression, which is protected under the Bill of Rights.
Dr Li, also former president of the Private Hospitals Association, said the hospital in the past had had trouble disseminating information on medical advancements such as disease treatment and new technology.
'The lifting of the advertising ban is a landmark ruling and a milestone for the medical sector in Hong Kong,' he said. 'In the past, every time we came out to talk about medical technology and held public seminars, we risked being charged by the Medical Council. Without that medical information, how could the public know what services are available?'
Dr Li said the hospital, however, would not launch a massive advertising drive following its victory.
'We almost have a full house now, and we have no problems on the business side, so we don't need to advertise more. What is important now is that we feel free to inform the public on new services.'
He said there was a trend of private hospitals introducing top-notch medical advice earlier than the Hospital Authority, which takes more time to seek approval for resources.
He said advertising these new advances could stimulate competition among doctors and eventually reduce medical costs.
'If patients know something new is available, they will go and ask their doctors,' he said. 'And when more and more patients ask, doctors will realise there is a rising demand, and they will find ways to upgrade themselves. Medical costs will go down as more doctors learn the skills.'
A major part of a private hospital's service was the doctor's fee, he said.
'Regarding bed rates and hospital services, about 70 per cent of the costs come from staff costs, and in view of a global shortage of nurses, it is difficult to bring manpower costs down.'
He said the long-time blanket ban on doctors' advertising had suffocated the development of Hong Kong as a medical tourism hub. 'While Singapore was doing well in medical tourism in Asia, Hong Kong doctors and hospitals did not have a chance to tell overseas and mainland patients about their services and skills, and that's a big shame. It's time for Hong Kong to catch up.'