Appointment of more lay members to the Medical Council is a step in the right direction

Increased transparency and accountability are essential if public confidence in the watchdog on patient care is to be restored

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 February, 2016, 12:31am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 February, 2016, 12:31am

Since the public places trust in doctors it is reasonable to assume they are well suited to govern themselves. But if a profession is to be self-regulating it has to expect scrutiny to ensure that upholding standards and safeguarding the public interest are paramount. That has not always clearly been the case with the Medical Council, the watchdog for patient care. The public finds it hard to understand how a couple waited nine years for an obstetrician to be disciplined over the death of their newborn son, or why a High Court judge should find a “lamentable state of affairs” last year in overturning the council’s dismissal of a case against a paediatrician that was lodged in 2010.

In the first case, a patients’ rights group said it fitted a pattern and in the second, the judge slammed a “protracted and cumbersome process”.

A rising clamour for greater public representation on the council and a shake-up of complaint investigations and disciplinary hearings prompted a lawmaker to propose a private bill, which led officials to take action. As a result the government is to double the number of lay members it appoints to the council from four to eight in a bid to enhance efficiency and transparency. Doctors who wanted to retain the current balance of 14 elected doctors and 14 government-appointed members are not convinced that the move will speed up inquiries into complaints. The Medical Association argues that equal representation for doctors is a way to maintain professional autonomy and self-regulation.

A proposal to amend the Medical Registration Ordinance is due to be put to the Legislative Council next week. The appointment of more lay members alone will not be a complete solution, though their increased availability could speed up the convening of panels for investigations and disciplinary hearings. But it is a step in the right direction. Increased transparency and accountability are essential if public confidence in the watchdog is to be restored.