Time to open the door to foreign doctors

There’s a severe shortfall in the number of medical professionals working in the public sector and the problem is only getting worse. Yet the closed-door mentality of the medical lobby is preventing Hong Kong from recruiting doctors from overseas

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 January, 2018, 1:19am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 January, 2018, 4:03am

The problem of a chronic and worsening shortage of doctors at public hospitals is one of economics and perverse incentives, not about medical standards.

The medical lobby represented by the Medical Association has refused to support the Hospital Authority to loosen rules that severely restrict the recruitment of overseas doctors. It claims it only wants to maintain high standards.

But if that is its real concern, shouldn’t it help to devise a viable screening and hiring system that could select only qualified foreign doctors rather than opposing it?

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Unless it is compelled to end its protectionism, the shortfall of public doctors can never be resolved. Last year, a record-high number of doctors left public hospitals with a turnover rate of 5.7 per cent. The Hospital Authority has a shortfall of more than 250 doctors.

In most professional sectors, from finance and banking to education and the judiciary, Hong Kong has long recognised the need to maintain international standards and competitiveness, by hiring expatriate professionals, usually with attractive employment packages. Or at least we don’t go out of our way to make those packages unattractive.

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The medical lobby has turned this sensible practice on its head, claiming only Hong Kong doctors are really good enough for the public. Foreign doctors, even if they pass an excruciatingly tough exam, will only be given a one-year contract by the Hospital Authority.

Why would any overseas professionals move here for just one year, with no guarantee of contract renewal?

Private specialists enjoy a highly lucrative practice, partly thanks to the public health system. In Hong Kong, we actually have something like universal health care.

No matter what your hospital treatment is, whether it’s a broken leg or cancer, you pay a HK$75 admission fee and HK$120 per day. You have to pay for some drugs, which are usually subsidised.

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Most people end up going to public hospitals and clinics. The ones who don’t want to wait in long queues and can afford it – or have health insurance – switch to private hospitals, which are lightly regulated and free to charge an arm and a leg.

But doctors can only train to become specialists under the Hospital Authority. Once they qualify, a lucrative private practice beckons.

Meanwhile, the two medical schools are not turning out doctors fast enough. If other advanced economies such as Singapore, Canada and Britain manage to hire qualified foreign doctors, why can’t Hong Kong?