Public hospitals may soon be able to recruit overseas nurses under a limited registration system because of a severe staff shortage - which has reached a stage that each nurse has to take care of an average of more than 60 patients.
Overseas nurses may be allowed to work at Hong Kong's public hospitals before passing the city's licensing examinations, said Secretary for Food and Health Dr York Chow Yat-ngok.
'We hope to discuss with the Nursing Council to see if we can let overseas nurses work in Hong Kong under special conditions, just like doctors,' he said.
The Hospital Authority is still short of 1,000 nurses to maintain services, despite having spent HK$200 million to recruit 1,600 nurses in recent years.
The shortage is comparable to the doctors' staffing problem. The authority earlier announced it was planning to hire overseas doctors under limited registration. These doctors do not need to sit for the medical council's licensing examination and can be exempted from the one-year internship. In exchange they can only work in the public sector.
Professor Thomas Wong Kwok-shing, who stepped down as the chairman of the Nursing Council last month, said this was the direction the licensing committee was looking to solve the nurse shortage problem, but details have not yet been finalised.
'It is still very preliminary. The committee is still working on the regulations, such as who would qualify, and what posts would they be allowed to take up,' he said.
But Association of Hong Kong Nursing Staff chairman Joseph Lee Kok-long, who is also a Legislative Council member, said recruiting from overseas was not a good solution.
'Our situation is different from that of doctors,' he said. 'Doctors lack specialists in certain departments and overseas recruits would help. But there are many specialist nurses in Hong Kong. They just left the HA because they were not promoted.'
Lee said nurses from Southeast Asia had been recruited in 1992 to 1993, when the authority was first established and lacked manpower. But he said most left after their contract was over due to the comparatively heavy workload in Hong Kong.
'In Singapore, a nurse takes care of 40 patients. In Hong Kong, we often face 60 to 70 patients at one time,' he said.
Authority chairman Anthony Wu Ting-yuk said he welcomed overseas nurses coming to work in public hospitals who fulfilled Nursing Council requirements.
'If there are Hong Kong nurses who emigrated to Australia or Canada and want to come back, we always welcome them,' he said.
Wu said overseas recruitment was just one of the many measures to ease staff shortage. Other measures included creating more senior posts and expanding nursing schools.
According to authority statistics, public hospitals lost 4.91 per cent of registered nurses and 3.54 per cent of enrolled nurses in the year 2009-10. Of the 637 nurses who left, about 340 had at least 10 years' experience.
Chow said relief was already on the way.
'The worst time is over. In the past we had 1,000 new nurses every year. Next year we will have 2,000 as more students graduate.'
The average number of patients one nurse in Hong Kong has to look after
- In Singapore, the average number is 40