Public hospitals will try to hire a record 2,000 nurses this year to ease a chronic staff shortage, a top nursing official says. Sylvia Fung Yuk-kuen, the Hospital Authority's chief nurse executive, said staffing problems in obstetric services, which have been overwhelmed by expectant mothers from the mainland, would not be resolved, however, until next year. The authority expects more nurses to return in 2013 from private hospitals. The new hiring target of 2,000, up from 1,700 last year, aimed to stem manpower losses to the more lucrative private sector and would account for about 10 per cent of the total number of nurses, Fung said. About 1,700 of the vacancies would be filled by fresh university graduates, she said, and the remainder by experienced nurses returning from the private sector. But employing more new blood should not be the only way to deal with the shortage of nursing staff, said Dr Joseph Lee Kok-long, lawmaker for the health services sector. 'Retaining current talent should be one of the major issues for the authority to address,' he said. 'If the human resources policy does not change at all, and the undesirable working environment for nurses goes unresolved, public hospitals will go on losing staff no matter how many new people they hire,' said Lee, who is also the chairman of the Association of Hong Kong Nursing Staff. Lee said the nurse-patient ratio in the public sector could be as bad as one to 14, or even one to 16. The workload is almost double that in private hospitals. 'The government should develop a standard nurse-patient ratio for each ward to adhere to and hire people according to the standard,' Lee said. 'Just throwing out the number to be hired without any standard as a reference is meaningless.' Public hospitals had a 5.3 per cent turnover rate for all nurses last year, meaning 1,044 nurses left. Of those, a third were nurses with three years of experience who had finished their first government contract, Fung said. Paediatrics and obstetrics departments had the most severe staff shortage; 7 per cent and 6 per cent of their nurses, respectively, left last year, Fung said. Obstetrics wards were short about 80 nurses. A major reason is private hospitals have been investing heavily in the two specialties, attracting experienced staff with higher pay. Fung appealed to obstetric nurses working in private hospitals - who may see a dimmer future as demand shrinks now that the government has announced a 'zero quota' for births to mainlanders in private hospitals next year - to consider returning to the public service. She said the authority would welcome them. 'But this will not happen until 2013,' Fund said. 'As 2012 is the Year of the Dragon, we expect the [demand for obstetric nurses in private hospitals to] continue to be great.' She said public hospitals could provide more training and experience to nurses. That would give those hospitals an advantage over private hospitals, against which it would be hard to compete in terms of salary.