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Hong Kong lawmakers must feel pressure on Medical Council reform bill

Public show of support is required for renewed attempt to increase the number of non-doctors on body and have patients’ complaints handled more speedily

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 September, 2017, 1:40am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 September, 2017, 1:40am

While heated political rows have virtually monopolised the attention of the public, a most contentious bill that is about to be debated in the new legislative session is being downplayed.

That’s the reform bill for the Medical Council, the body that licenses and disciplines local doctors. Its legislative outcome will affect virtually everyone yet, of late, there has been little public debate and discussion. That is worrying.

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However, one of the city’s most entrenched cartels, private doctors as represented by the Medical Association and six other groups, has already tabled a so-called consensus proposal to pre-empt the revised government bill and put pressure on lawmakers.

The bill as presented last year fell victim in the Legislative Council to the filibustering of former medical sector henchman Leung Ka-lau. Too afraid of the powerful medical lobby, politicians on both sides just stood by and let the bill die. This was despite surveys showing the public overwhelmingly supported reform to make the medical profession more accountable and the council’s work, especially its disciplinary procedures, more transparent.

The new bill, expected to be even more moderate in its proposed reform, may well meet the same fate. Its intention, like the previous one, is to increase the number of non-doctors, possibly by up to four new seats, on the council, and to have more assessors to speed up the handling of patient complaints. There is now a backlog of over 900 cases and waiting time for a hearing may be as long as 58 months.

However, the medical lobby wants to preserve the status quo. Any increase in the number of lay council members, it argues, needs to be balanced, among other things, by more elected seats by doctors. It wants, for example, the two seats currently occupied by representatives of the Hospital Authority and the Food and Health Bureau to be elected by doctors.

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The government is partly to blame for its predicament, but this does not mean its bill is without merits. The council first proposed reform as early as 1999, but the bureau only started to take action in 2015.

Even under the proposed reform, doctors would still outnumber lay members on the council by four to one. But even this is too many. Only public pressure now will give lawmakers the backbone to support the reform bill.