Hong Kong health care and hospitals

Why battle over qualifications means 100 clinical psychologists in Hong Kong could be out of a job

Long-delayed voluntary accreditation scheme for health care sector has left two rival professional bodies at loggerheads

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 July, 2018, 8:34am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 July, 2018, 8:58am

As many as 100 practising clinical psychologists risk losing their jobs under a Hong Kong government scheme to regulate various professions in the health care sector as arguments rage over the validity of their qualifications.

The long-delayed voluntary accreditation scheme aims to address the current hands-off approach towards the health care sector and give the public more information about the qualifications of non-medical and non-pharmaceutical therapists.

Audiologists, clinical psychologists, dietitians, educational psychologists and speech therapists can all join the scheme under the Department of Health, according to a department paper submitted to the Legislative Council this month. But infighting remains in at least one sector, clinical psychology, with two rival professional bodies disagreeing over qualifications.

“Since the government does not want to interfere in the professional independence of the sector, we hope they can resolve their differences among themselves,” a government source said.

“We can facilitate discussions with each other, but they are the professionals in the area, so they are in the best position to judge [who is qualified].”

The source added that sectors that have already reached a consensus can join the scheme first.

The Hong Kong Psychological Society, a non-statutory body representing around 400 practitioners, was picked to undergo an assessment to see if was qualified to act as the sole regulator of its sector.

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The society, consisting mostly of graduates from the University of Hong Kong and Chinese University, has long claimed that about 100 members from another group have “questionable standards”.

The smaller group, the Hong Kong Association of Doctors in Clinical Psychology, was formed mainly by graduates from a self-financed programme at City University (CityU).

The possibility of not gaining official recognition means around 100 professionals risk not having clients even if they continue to practise, which is not banned under the voluntary scheme.

“Forcing our group away from the scheme will only hurt public health in Hong Kong,” said Joseph Siu Chu-shek, the association’s vice-chairman.

“There is already a serious shortage of clinical psychologists to meet demand, and it is not realistic to assume our members working in Hong Kong will just fold their clinics and go to practise somewhere else.

“It will only mean about [100 practitioners] of the sector will not be supervised by the government. But let me stress again, we want to be included and are happy to be regulated.”

The association argued that the City U qualification is recognised by international bodies in places such as the United States, Canada and Australia. It will be “an international joke” if the Hong Kong government does not recognise it, Siu said.

The course, however, will be axed next year because of an upcoming change in the US accreditation policy, which means future graduates will no longer be recognised by the American body.

The society stressed the professionalism of the sector should not be undermined by accrediting practitioners whose training was “questionable” in terms of the qualifications of teachers, course design and internship opportunities.

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The two groups will meet on July 21 in a bid to resolve their differences.

Siu’s group is lobbying lawmakers and has submitted a petition to Chinese University medicine professor Yeoh Eng-kiong, who the government tasked with handling the scheme.

Between 1.1 million and 1.8 million Hongkongers display some form of mental or emotional problems, surveys found, with as many as 220,000 having a serious condition.

The ratio of psychologists in the city is 8.2 per 100,000 population, including the CityU graduates, compared with 12.8 in Britain, 29.6 in the US and 47.4 in Canada.

There is already a serious shortage of clinical psychologists to meet demand, and it is not realistic to assume our members will just fold their clinics
Joseph Siu, vice-chairman of clinical psychology association

As there is no law banning anyone from calling themselves a therapist, it is difficult for the public to tell if service providers are qualified.

Under the scheme, the Department of Health will empower an independent body from each profession to ensure standards among its members, and allow them to print a label to declare they are recognised by the government.

The accreditation agency led by Yeoh received 20 applications covering 15 professions by the deadline in February last year, according to the Legco paper.

Speech therapists, represented by the Hong Kong Institute of Speech Therapists, were the first to be accredited in April under the scheme.

While those outside the scheme would not be banned from working, the source hoped substandard practitioners without official accreditation would be gradually phased out in the free market.