As if Hong Kong's public hospital system did not have enough problems, with demand for services rising as staff leave, yet another issue is looming: the top boss is due to step down in seven months.
The longest-serving chairman in the Hospital Authority's history, Anthony Wu Ting-yuk will have led the organisation for eight years when his contract ends in November. In a wide-ranging interview with the South China Morning Post, Wu reviewed the system's major challenges, from mainland mums to staff turnover and hiring foreign doctors.
Asked if he would like to remain for another term, Wu replied: 'It is up to the decision of the government, it is still too early to discuss my departure [with the government].'
His current two-year term follows an initial six-year tenure.
'It is true that no one should stay too long in a leadership position because there's a danger of losing perspective,' he said. 'But, as the authority is a large body, it will take a few years for anyone to get familiar with the complicated issues. It would be a terrible waste of valuable experience if a board member had to leave after six years.'
He plans to seek a change to the authority's rules, to make board memberships longer than six years.
Looking back, Wu said his biggest regret is that patients' waiting times are no shorter now than when he took over. 'We have been unable to bring down the waiting times,' he said. 'It is a resource problem, stemming from an increasing demand and a shortage of manpower. This is the biggest issue confronted by the public hospitals now.
'We have tried all sorts of ways to deal with the staffing shortage.'
Staff turnover at all public hospitals was 4.8 per cent in the first quarter of this year, down slightly from a peak figure of over 5 per cent.
Wu described measures the authority had taken to address the issue, including paying doctors for overtime and adding more levels of authority to make promotions easier. But the shortfall of doctors would continue for a few more years, he said, before the number of medical students begin to increase.
In the meantime, the authority has taken the controversial step of recruiting overseas doctors and waiving the local licensing exam. So far, 11 such non-local doctors have been assigned to limited practice.
Wu defended the controversial programme, which has been sharply criticised by some local doctors. One Medical Association member even called for Wu's sacking for pushing the project too aggressively.
'It is a good thing that I am not a doctor myself,' Wu said, referring to the scheme's defenders who have imputed doctors' criticism to professional self-interest. 'There is no conflict of interest in the matter for me.'
Wu, an accountant, rejects the criticism that the corporate culture has changed from being people- to business-centred under his watch.
'I totally disagree with that claim. The hospitals are directed for people. We haven't raised clinic fees, even though medical costs have surged every year.'
Public hospitals were providing excellent, world-leading medical treatment at a cheap price, he said.
'If I had to run it as a business, I would run it in a way to make money, not like this.'
As for the high-profile issue of pregnant mainlanders flooding city hospitals to give birth, Wu does not rule out simply banning non-local women from giving birth here, reserving all obstetrics beds for locals.
The maternity bed quota for non-local women in Hong Kong public hospitals is 3,400 this year. Wu urged the government to set the private hospital quota - due to be announced later this month - with the capacity of public wards in mind. That is because the city's only intensive care units for newborns are in public hospitals.