A dramatic rise in the number of Hong Kong veterinarians has pushed the time it takes to resolve a complaint against the profession to about five years.
The number of registered vets has grown from 150 to 720 since the 1997 handover, with the number of complaints each year rising from eight in 1998 to about 50 in recent times.
The Veterinary Surgeons Board of Hong Kong, which disciplines surgeons in cases of misconduct, is struggling to reduce the backlog.
"There has been rising awareness of the importance of animal welfare and higher community expectations about the standard of veterinary service in Hong Kong," a Food and Health Bureau spokesman said.
"In tandem with the wider availability and utilisation of veterinary services in the territory, the number of complaints received [by the VSB] has risen markedly in recent years."
To tackle the chronic delay, the government announced proposals yesterday to amend the Veterinary Surgeons Registration Bill that would enlarge the board and streamline the complaints process. The plans will be put before the Legislative Council on Wednesday.
The board is seeking to increase the number of its members from 10 to 19, including six to be elected by the profession.
A panel of assessors is also to be established to decide which complaint cases go to an inquiry committee for a disciplinary hearing, bypassing the board.
"Definitely a major issue with [the board] since its set-up is the delay in processing complaints," said Jane Gray, chief veterinary surgeon and deputy director of veterinary services at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
A complaint could sit for two years before those involved were advised that it had been dismissed, Gray said.
And if it goes to a disciplinary hearing, the process can take up to five years.
"By that time, it's hard to remember the details sometimes," she said. "It's a lot of stress for clients and vets as well."
She said most vets would consider six months to a year an acceptable processing time for complaints.
Gray, who has been practising in the city since 1991, welcomed both proposals.
"There's still a lot of work to be done, but this is a good step forward," she said.
Gray also said that by introducing elected members into the currently all-governmentappointed board, it would garner more respect for the body within the profession.
Many of the current members were not in general practice, she noted, compared to vets of good standing in general practice who would be more familiar with complaint issues and could give a valuable insight into how to make decisions.