19 September 2019
To ensure a smooth healthcare system, Hong Kong needs to address issues related to public hospital doctors. Photo: HKEJ
To ensure a smooth healthcare system, Hong Kong needs to address issues related to public hospital doctors. Photo: HKEJ

It’s time to call a halt to cuts in healthcare spending

The Hospital Authority (HA) recently succumbed to pressure and agreed to raise the salaries of public hospital doctors, using internal resources to cover the extra expense, after the doctors staged a sit-in protest over unequal pay.

While the matter may have blown over, the HA has once again failed to get to the heart of the issue. What it has done so far is nothing more than a quick fix. It is only a matter of time before the outrage of public hospital doctors reaches a tipping point, sparking another round of industrial action or even strikes in our public hospitals.

The root cause of the raging dispute over doctors’ pay in public hospitals lies in the fact that the government has continued to ignore their demand for getting paid according to the current Master Pay Scale applicable to civil servants.

The reason for that is simple: if their demand is granted, then the government will have to commit a lot more resources to the HA in the long run, which is against the administration’s secret agenda to curb healthcare spending and channel more patients to the private medical sector.

That explains why the government on one hand has agreed to doctors’ demand for a pay rise, but on the other ordered the HA to bear all the extra cost using its own internal resources.

Unless the government agrees to inject extra funds, the recent pay rise for doctors might prove the last straw that breaks the camel’s back and put the HA into the red in less than three years’ time.

Once the HA runs out of money, it might be forced to cut spending by reducing its non-emergency service, or later even its emergency service if the deficit continues to grow. By that time it would definitely be the majority of our general public who will bear the brunt of it, as most of them just won’t be able to afford the same kind of medical treatment in the private market.

Also, they could be subject to even longer waiting times for medical treatments and surgeries, thereby missing their best chance of recovery.

As public healthcare is among the handful of remaining social welfare services to which most of our taxpayers, particularly the middle class, are entitled, we must not remain silent anymore and allow our government to continue to strip our healthcare budget to the bone.

It’s time we stood up to defend our rights and demand that the administration commit more resources to our public healthcare system, bear the extra cost for the pay rise of doctors, and improve the quality of service of our public hospitals immediately.

As a matter of fact, the controversy surrounding doctors’ pay in public hospitals dates back to as early as 1990, when the HA was established. Over the years discontent among public hospital doctors over their unequal pay has continued to grow. So far, they have voiced their anger three times through large-scale industrial actions.

For a long time there have been calls among society for better pay and better working conditions for public hospital doctors as they are often putting their own lives at risk as they serve the public. The professionalism and selflessness they demonstrated during the SARS epidemic in 2003 speaks volumes. Besides, it is difficult to expect our doctors to meet the rising public demand for high quality service and accountability if they themselves are overworked and underpaid.

Much to the dismay of the public, the government has in recent years been favoring the private medical sector and trying to expand its market share by cutting public healthcare spending on one hand, and promoting numerous health insurance programs on the other, in an apparent effort to push more patients to private hospitals.

What the government is doing actually constitutes an act of collusion with big private medical businesses and a transfer of interest at the expense of the public.

The medical accidents that have taken place in our public hospitals one after another in recent years serve as a warning that doctors and nurses in those institutions are being pushed over the edge by ever-increasing workload and deteriorating working conditions.

If the government doesn’t address the issue promptly and review its policy, it won’t be long before our city witnesses a public healthcare crisis.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 6.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former radio talk show host; Columnist at the Hong Kong Economic Journal