My Take

Hong Kong needs to open the door to foreign doctors

Hong Kong is desperately short of doctors and nurses yet the medical profession is opposed to bringing in qualified personnel from overseas

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 January, 2017, 12:39am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 January, 2017, 12:39am

Hong Kong is short of at least 250 doctors and 700 nurses at its public hospitals. There are only two ways to address the problem of manpower shortage: train more of them locally or import more of them from overseas. The first solution is less controversial. Plans are afoot to increase the annual intake of students at the two local medical schools, from 250 to 470, by the end of this decade. Local nursing schools will also have to increase intakes substantially. But this alone will not resolve the problem.

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Unfortunately, the intransigence of the medical community has made any consensus on the second solution impossible. They claim the import of foreign doctors would undermine professional standards and welfare of patients. Critics look on their resistance more as trade protectionism, to shield their highly lucrative and lightly regulated practices from outside competition.

A more popular government might have been able to rally public support. But the current government, unfortunately, has little credibility. Officials have also upset vested interests within the medical sector by trying to reform the powerful Medical Council, which also has the power to license foreign doctors.

The government already failed to pass a reform bill in the last legislature, and is trying to revive it by renegotiating the terms with the medical establishment. The previous failed bill aimed to appoint more lay members to the council – long considered overprotective of doctors – and to have more elected rather than appointed seats.

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Predictably, doctors’ groups resisted, claiming the government would control the council, undermine its independence, and might even allow substandard foreign or mainland Chinese doctors to work here.

The council reform is long overdue, but it is less urgent than the manpower shortage at public hospitals. The next government and the Hospital Authority should play hardball and unilaterally expand its current programme to import substantially more overseas doctors to work at public hospitals and lengthen their contracts. Last year, only 12 foreigners joined the scheme as their contracts are for only 12 months. Five more have been approved to join this month.

Officials don’t need the support of doctors’ groups, so long as they maintain the restriction that bars foreign doctors from entering private practice when their contracts expire.

Canada, Britain, Singapore, Malaysia and many others have been importing foreign doctors for years. It’s time for Hong Kong to do the same.