A concern group has urged the Medical Council to address its shortcomings and restore public confidence in light of criticism that it has failed to protect patients’ rights.
The council’s problems were highlighted by the case of singer Peter Cheung Shung-tak and his wife, former actress Eugina Lau Mei-kuen, who spent nine years in an uphill battle for justice over the death of their newborn son in 2005.
A spokesman for the Patients’ Rights Association said the couple’s case was only the tip of the iceberg, and showed how the Medical Council was slow, inactive and performing below the public’s expectations in handling complaints against doctors.
“Most patients would not have the time, resources and knowledge to report a doctor’s malpractice in the first place,” Tim Pang Hung-cheong said. “Reform of the [Medical Council] is long overdue.”
The council receives about 500 complaints each year, but only an average of 22 cases make it to disciplinary hearings.
Each complaint filed to the body is studied by its preliminary investigation committee, which will reject it if three members – its chairman, vice-chairman and one lay member – find the complaint frivolous or groundless.
Pang said the committee often required complainants to submit technical documents as evidence, which most patients found difficult to obtain. It could also take years before the complainants received the committee’s decision on whether it will take the case, he said.
In Cheung and Lau’s case, the couple first filed a complaint to the Medical Council in 2005, months after their infant’s death. But the council rejected the case, saying it was groundless.
The couple then sold their flat, spending a seven-digit sum on a civil claim in 2007 against the medical professionals involved in an effort to obtain more evidence to support their case.
During the proceedings of the civil claim, which was eventually settled out of court, an obstetrics expert found many flaws in the handling of the birth and the infant’s care.
It was only after the couple filed a new complaint in 2009, submitting the expert opinion as evidence, that the council accepted the case.
The doctor against whom they complained was found guilty of four charges of professional misconduct on May 24 this year, nine years after the child’s death.
Cheung said he was relieved that he and his wife did not give up in their battle for the truth. He also criticised problems with the Medical Council’s complaint system.
Pang echoed that criticism, adding that the council should take a more active role in investigating problematic cases and increase its transparency in processing complaints.
Dr Gabriel Choi Kin, chairman of the council’s preliminary investigation committee, explained that delays were often caused by the mountain of documents that committee members had to go through when assessing complaints. They also had to consult experts for more complex cases, he said.
Former Medical Council chairwoman Professor Felice Lieh Mak told the South China Morning Post in 2012 that a revamp of the body was long overdue.
The council had in 2002 submitted a reform proposal to the government, suggesting increasing the number of non-doctor lay members in the committee from its current four to eight. The committee has 28 members in all.
Lieh Mak said she believed a revamp was necessary to restore public confidence in the council.
But the Food and Health Bureau, which has set up a steering committee for a strategic review of health-care manpower planning and professional development, has yet to announce any changes.
A bureau spokeswoman did not explain the delay, but said a recommendation would be announced after the review.