Hong Kong health care and hospitals

Political will needed to ease staffing crisis at hospitals struck by flu

  • While the latest cash injection into Hong Kong’s struggling health care system is a gesture to pacify those working on the front line, what is really required are more qualified doctors
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 January, 2019, 9:44pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 January, 2019, 10:31pm

If money alone could help Hong Kong public hospitals over a severe winter flu season, the Hospital Authority would not be hit by the same crisis nearly year after year. Nonetheless, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor yesterday pledged another HK$500 million for the public health system as the number of people coming down with flu continued to surge over the past four weeks. For a government that is so used to splashing money around, this is hardly surprising. But with the same amount of money injected last year still in use, the new funding is more a gesture to pacify frontline staff rather than a genuine cure for the underlying ills.

The real issue is, of course, the industry’s long-standing resistance to open up to qualified medical professionals from overseas. This was also addressed by the city’s leader when she announced the extra funding, the second batch since she took office in 2017. But, to avoid causing misunderstanding and worries at this critical juncture, the government has opted for what it calls a more caring approach to address the immediate issues.

Hong Kong short of 200 nurses as hospitals grapple with deadly flu season

At the height of a crisis, the last thing the government wants is to provoke those who are being stretched to breaking point. Over the past two weeks, public nurses and doctors have taken turns to air their grievances. Yesterday, a nurse at Kwong Wah Hospital was allegedly assaulted by a mother dissatisfied with the slow pace of treatment for her son.

With the inpatient ward occupancy rate exceeding 120 per cent in some districts, the workload and suffering of frontline medical staff are beyond doubt. What they need now is understanding and support rather than measures that may be misconstrued as undermining their interests.

But as we give them our heartfelt thanks for their dedication and professionalism, we must not forget the underlying problems. This is not the first time public hospitals have been inundated by flu sufferers. The manpower shortage stems from an imbalance between the public and private health care sectors, aggravated by resistance to allowing more foreign doctors to come in and ease the pain. It has also been suggested that restrictions should be relaxed so doctors from Commonwealth countries can work here. If the crisis can be addressed by opening the door wider in the long run, there is no reason why we should not explore the issue further.

Turning down feasible solutions at the expense of rigid occupational protectionism is hardly in the public interest. As rightly acknowledged by the chief executive, bringing in more qualified doctors has not been ruled out by the government. What we need is perhaps better timing, backed by strong political will and skills for a consensus to be forged on the way forward.