The public interest would be the top consideration for the Medical Council in deciding whether overseas doctors can work in the city's public hospitals without having to sit an examination, its chairwoman, Professor Felice Lieh Mak, said yesterday. Responding for the first time to the plan by the Hospital Authority, she said it had a responsibility to maintain good service in the face of a staffing crisis. 'The authority's responsibility is to serve the public,' she said. 'If there are not enough local doctors, public hospitals may have to hire overseas doctors.' The authority wants the council to provide 'limited registrations' for overseas plastic and cardiothoracic surgeons to ease the staffing crisis. The plan, which would extend to other specialties, has triggered heated debate, with one council member saying it could cause the licensing system to collapse. The Public Doctors' Association objects to the plan, saying it would take pressure off the authority to improve doctors' working conditions. Lieh Mak said the association's concern was 'irrelevant' to the council. 'The Medical Council is neutral. Our basic principle is to protect the public interest,' she said. Overseas doctors wanting to practise in Hong Kong have to sit a licensing examination but the council can exempt some and grant them limited registration. Of 171 doctors practising at present with such registration, 103 work at the two university medical schools, three at the Hospital Authority and one at the Health Department. The rest are primary-care doctors who were practising before 1964. Lieh Mak said that before the council would grant limited registration to an overseas applicant, the authority had to prove no local doctor was available in the required specialty, and the applicant had the appropriate qualifications and experience. She said the council had approved limited registration of overseas doctors in the past to address a staffing problem. The two medical schools had hired overseas anaesthetists because of a local shortage. But council member Dr Ho Pak-leung said there was no justification for using overseas doctors. 'If we open this floodgate, the whole licensing examination system will collapse. Limited registration is to bring in expertise not available locally, not for importation of labour,' he said. Ho is polling the profession about the authority's proposal and will present the result to the council later. Professor Malcolm Underwood, head of cardiothoracic surgery at Chinese University, said his team had been proposing overseas recruitment to the authority for several years and he was glad the proposal was finally on the agenda. He said limited registration would allow middle-level surgical trainees to work in the city for a year or two. 'The special feature of our specialty is that we have a good number of specialists but very few middle-grade doctors,' he said.