Balance required on medical staff from overseas
- With Hong Kong’s financial secretary expected to allocate extra money in his budget to fight the latest flu outbreak, public hospitals are also desperately in need of more health workers
It is only a year since the government injected HK$500 million into a stressed public hospital system to help it cope with a severe winter flu outbreak. In the midst of a new outbreak, the financial secretary is expected to allocate another substantial sum to medical services in the budget. That tells us money alone is palliative for systemic stress and not necessarily a cure.
Evidence of that was to be seen at the weekend when members of the Association of Hong Kong Nursing Staff gathered to protest at a shortage of workers that has resulted in extra shifts and skipped meals as they try to cope with an excessive patient load. When Secretary for Food and Health Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee told them that the Hospital Authority would raise the pay of frontline staff on extra shifts by 10 per cent, some nurses actually booed and said public hospitals needed more employees, not money.
Association chairman Joseph Lee Kok-long said it was disappointing the administration had not fully utilised the extra funding from last year to cope with the latest outbreak. Nurses’ frustration is understandable, but the effectiveness of extra spending to fix a long-standing resources problem is paramount. Hopefully, the expected funding boost in the budget will be accompanied by a resolve to strive for investment value. Given that public hospitals treat 90 per cent of patients, the system cannot afford to educate and train health care professionals to peak potential only to lose too many to private hospitals and overseas professional migration schemes. It must be remembered that nursing in particular is a mobile profession and city practitioners are in great demand.
Hong Kong has a widely respected public health care system. To maintain standards and service to the community it must not only constantly review professional training intakes and compete in terms of pay and professional working conditions. The authorities and professional bodies also need to cooperate to strike a balance in applying barriers, such as those regarding qualifications or language, to entry by non-local candidates that serves the best interests of all Hong Kong people and does not amount to rigid occupational protectionism or a closed shop. A flexible and proactive approach is needed to ensure we compete effectively for foreign talent.