Time for Hong Kong to stem medical brain drain and open up doctors’ closed shop
Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung has pitched the city’s struggling public hospital system to students in London and new recruits are urgently needed
Hong Kong rightly prides itself on a high standard of health care primarily delivered through a public hospital system used by 90 per cent of patients. But the system is under pressure, reflected in the exodus of doctors to the private sector and chronically long queues and waiting times. It says something about a growing mismatch of resources and demand that the city’s No 2 official, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, has gone to the extraordinary lengths of pitching Hong Kong ‘s public health system as a career option to graduating British medical students.
The occasion was an event in London organised by our Hospital Authority. What helps makes his speech unusual is that despite the urgency of the problem, Hong Kong applies rules that limit incentives for overseas doctors. Thanks to opposition from the local medical profession on the grounds of patient safety, doctors trained overseas, including Britain, need to pass a tough licensing exam or apply for limited registration. Others have called for a more flexible approach, sparking debate about where the best interests of patients lie.
That is a shame. Cheung’s description of a fast-expanding hospital system to meet the needs of young and old could appeal to new doctors seeking challenges or broader pastures. These range from the special needs of an ageing population with long life expectancy to “immediate” job opportunities at the city’s first children’s hospital, near the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal, set to open in phases from this quarter. There are also three-year contract opportunities at the Department of Health.
Cheung said that despite a near doubling of the intake at medical schools over the past decade and a higher retirement age, a shortfall last year of about 285 doctors was expected to widen to 500 in just two years. That is unsustainable. Something has to give. It cannot be the standard of patient care. The first step has to be to stem the brain drain from the public sector by making it a more compelling career path, professionally and financially. A public-private health care partnership that relieves the pressure on the public system must remain a goal, and officials need to redouble efforts to convince the medical profession to begin opening up their closed shop.