Action against Hong Kong liver surgeon will hit transplant patients
The decision not to renew the contract of Dr Kelvin Ng, who left an operation at a public hospital for another at a private facility, will result in longer queues
The University of Hong Kong’s decision not to renew the contract of liver transplant specialist Dr Kelvin Ng Kwok-chai at its teaching hospital, Queen Mary, is understandable. Ng caused a storm last October when he left a patient waiting for a donor liver on the operating table with an opened abdomen for three hours to attend a patient at a private hospital.
Though apparently no harm was done, reports of the incident would have conveyed an awful image to the public, most of whom use the government hospital system. A patients’ rights advocate found the decision “reasonable”, and in line with people’s expectations. It is an example of swift accountability for medical incidents that many, including this newspaper, call for.
But having said all that, the decision is not necessarily in the best interests of patients. Ng is the second most experienced surgeon in the city’s small group of liver transplant specialists. He has a special part-time contract because of a manpower shortage. During the operation in question, he was supervising another surgeon. Under the terms of his contract he may treat others at private hospitals and that was what he did in this case.
An investigative panel found his conduct “unacceptable” and “unnecessary”. Nonetheless Professor Lo Chung-mau, director of Queen Mary Hospital’s liver transplant centre, said it was a pity and a loss to the public medical sector that Ng would not have his contract renewed. “It is not easy to train a doctor to such a high standard,” he said. “Dr Ng … is both capable and caring to patients.”
There is more than peer respect at issue here. The real issue is the continuing chronic shortage of doctors, which is why Ng was practising publicly as well as privately in the first place. And the real victims of the non-renewal of his contract are patients, who can only expect longer queues since Ng’s experience does nothing to encourage doctors to juggle private and public practice. To address the shortage of doctors at the root of this affair, the government not only needs to be more proactive, but should also face the question of whether patient safety is really best served by the medical profession’s opposition to recruiting more doctors trained overseas.