The Medical Council would cut up to 10 months off the time it takes to set up a hearing on a complaint against a doctor if the government accepts its latest reform proposal, chairman Professor Joseph Lau Wan-yee says.
But even after the reforms, patients would still have to wait at least 21/2 years to see doctors face punishment, Lau said as he announced the proposal yesterday. Average waiting times now are 38 to 40 months.
And, he warned, "vested interests" could get in the way of changes. The council previously put forward a reform plan in 2001, but the changes were never endorsed by the government.
Under the proposal, lawyers and expert witnesses will be given only one month to prepare papers, rather than three, and four days per week will be set aside for the council's inquiries, rather than two.
The council also proposes to increase the number of lay people on its panel of assessors from four to 14. Panel members, who also include medical professionals, serve both at disciplinary hearings and on preliminary investigation panels, which decide whether a complaint is worth pursuing. Lau said the extra lay members would ease the workload on existing members and improve accountability, as well as making the disciplinary process more efficient.
Lau said waiting times would fall to 29 or 30 months, but further cuts would be difficult.
"If we rush the process, it could easily go wrong," he said. "If a judicial review overrules us, we cannot charge the person for a second time."
He said an express track could be created for urgent cases.
The council has been in the spotlight since the case involving the son of Peter Cheung Shung-tak and his wife, former actress Eugina Lau Mei-kuen. Their child died a day after birth in 2005, but their obstetrician was only banned from practising last month.
The case prompted renewed calls for a revamp of the council.
But the reform will require legislative changes, and Lau warned of opposition on all sides.
"There are vested interests, there are those who don't want to do things, because there is no salary for our members and lawyers, and the government is afraid of anything going wrong," he said.
But he said Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man had reacted positively to the submission. The last time the council submitted a reform plan was in 2001. Lau said that proposal had been circulated between government departments but then went quiet. The reasons for the lack of progress remain unclear.
The number of complaints filed to the council had almost doubled over the last 13 years from 236 in 2001 to 452 last year, Lau said. Hearings took 46 days last year, compared to 14 in 2001.
Lau said the council could conduct up to 30 hearings per year. A complicated case could take up to 16 days.