The chronic shortage of doctors at public hospitals will not ease until at least 2018, Hospital Authority chief executive Leung Pak-yin says.
Speaking in an interview for a South China Morning Post forum on public hospital services, Leung said the increase in places at medical schools from about 300 to 420 would only start having an impact when students started graduating in 2018.
'The concern about inadequate doctor manpower can only be eased by increasing the number of local medical graduates,' Leung said.
'The government will increase the number of medical school places to 420, and it is expected that these medical students will graduate and help relieve the manpower constraints in 2018.' Places for nursing and allied health students were also increasing, he added.
Besides the staff shortage, Leung spoke of a wide range of chronic problems faced by the authority, such as heavy workloads, differences in service quality and variety between the public and private sectors, and the handling of medical blunders.
Dr Walton Li Wai-tat, the medical superintendent of the Hong Kong Sanatorium & Hospital (HKSH), acknowledged the imbalance with the private sector was serious.
The public sector takes care of 90 per cent of local patients, but employs only 40 per cent of all doctors. By contrast, private hospitals cater to a mere 10 per cent of patients who can afford to pay, but hire 60 per cent of the city's doctors. Both Li and Leung said a joint effort was needed from the two sectors to ease the reliance on the public system.
'The reality in Hong Kong is that we do not have sufficient hospital beds in both the public and private sectors. At HKSH, some patients have had to be turned away because of full hospital occupancy for more than 80 per cent of the time,' Li said.
'More private hospital beds are needed to help ease the health care demand on the public sector. However, the process of approval is long and, at times, not short of challenges. In this respect, the government can certainly help by facilitating the private sector to assume a greater role in meeting the demands of patients.'
Leung said the authority would continue to explore opportunities for public-private partnerships, including helping patients in the public sector undergo surgery in a private hospital, shortening waiting times and improving patient choices.
He said the authority had adopted new measures to address the manpower shortage by recruiting nonlocal doctors under limited registration, enhancing promotion prospects and recognising excessive overnight on-site call duties.
Medical experts from Taiwan and Singapore, which have faced similar problems, also joined the forum. They suggested admitting more qualified overseas doctors, subsidising the bills of patients approved for treatment in private hospitals, and encouraging private hospitals to share more of the public workload.