The role of our private hospitals appears to change according to governments' preferences and social sentiment. Five years ago, medical services were deemed by the then chief executive, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, to be one of the pillar industries that could bring Hong Kong's economy to new heights. But his successor, Leung Chun-ying, apparently thinks otherwise. The hospital business boom, riding on the influx of mainland mothers giving birth here, prompted a shift in policy for private health care.
In a recent media interview, Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man made it clear that the new government did not see private health care services as a pillar industry. Politically, he is not obliged to continue the policies of the previous administration. But there is cause for concern when the role of private hospitals is being redefined in such a way that our image as a free and open city will be undermined.
The health chief has expressed the hope that private hospitals will focus on serving local people and help ease the burden on the public health system. Although he said both public and private health services need to develop, serving foreigners should only be an added bonus for when private hospitals have excess capacity.
The government is right to put the interests of its people first. As far as the use of public resources is concerned, priorities must be given to local citizens. It is not unusual to see restrictions imposed on land granted at token cost. Some may even argue that private hospitals should serve locals first. But private hospitals are self-financed. Like other private enterprises, they should be allowed to operate on commercially viable principles. Their business has already been seriously affected by Leung's initiative to halt the influx of mainland mothers with a zero birth quota for next year. The lukewarm response to the two sites offered for new private hospitals underlines the market's concern over excessive regulation.
There is nothing wrong with private hospitals catering to patients who can afford to pay more, regardless of whether they are locals or outsiders. Any attempt to redefine their role may affect their business and must be undertaken with great care.
The idea of barring non-locals from buying certain flats has already aroused concerns about whether the city still adheres to its core beliefs in freedom and openness. It will be a dangerous step if the locals-only mindset extends to health care.