The outgoing Hospital Authority chairman Anthony Wu Ting-yuk says the biggest regret of his nine-year term heading the authority is being unable to solve the acute shortage of medical staff, especially doctors.
He gave the example of the well-equipped North Lantau Hospital in Tung Chung, saying it could not be put into full use because of this shortfall in medical manpower.
The problem is not new, and will get worse. The authority is now short of about 300 doctors, some 6 per cent of the total strength of its workforce.
Despite the authority making vigorous efforts to re-employ retired doctors to work on a part-time basis, the vacancy rate remains uncomfortably high for such an essential service.
The projected gap between the supply of doctors and patient demand is expected to widen further until 2018. Then, hopefully, it may be narrowed by a significant rise in the number of graduating interns from our local universities.
Meanwhile, given the strong economy and increasing demand for quality private medical services from non-local patients, the brain drain of experienced doctors from the authority to the private sector is likely to continue.
Taking into account our rapidly ageing population, the situation is analogous to a candle being burned from both ends - with potentially dire consequences for public hospital patients.
Under the current system, doctors graduating from non-local universities can practise in the city only if they pass the licensing examination of the Medical Council and complete a 12-month internship. The exam is renowned for its difficulty, no doubt for good reason. The city has always set its standard of medical care at a very high level.
However, given the acute shortage of public sector doctors and growing number of qualified candidates, the frequency of holding the examination will increase from one sitting to two sittings annually from next year.
This is a positive first step, but we need to do more.
Fewer than 30 applicants passed the examination this year. Doubling its frequency will probably bring no more than 50 graduating interns next year. Even assuming that most of those interns will be taken on by the authority, it will still be a long time before the deficit can be made up.
The council should do more, not by lowering the assessment standard but by making the entire system of examination and internship more flexible.
For example, would it be possible for graduates from a specified list of top-notch medical schools to be offered a far greater range of exemptions from various parts of the examination process?
Would it be reasonable for candidates with a proven record of qualified clinical practice to be exempted from the internship requirement, or to have a shorter internship?
Many of Hong Kong's sons and daughters graduated from or are studying in overseas medical schools. Most of them speak the local language.
They are our potential reinforcements.
We should proactively lure these students and graduates back to work for their home city. But we must be able to convince them that our local licensing examination is a reasonable test and not a hurdle designed to deter graduates from elsewhere.
Lam Woon-kwong is convenor of the Executive Council