16 September 2019
Hong Kong doctors are worried that a reform of the medical council will lead to the influx of low-quality medical practitioners from the mainland. Photo: HKEJ
Hong Kong doctors are worried that a reform of the medical council will lead to the influx of low-quality medical practitioners from the mainland. Photo: HKEJ

What’s the real agenda behind the medical council reform bill?

While Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying wants a harmonious environment to prevail in Hong Kong as he prepares for his bid for a second term in office, his government is keen on pushing for the reform of the medical council, which is raising concerns in the medical profession.

Why is he insisting on launching the reform at this time? Why is he standing on the opposite side of his supporters in the medical sector during the 2012 chief executive election?

The government wants to double the number of lay members in the professional regulatory body.

But the plan doesn’t sit well with members of the profession, who staged a protest outside the Legislative Council building on Wednesday.

They accused the government of trying to secure control of the Medical Council, and this they said could affect its independence.

From the government perspective, the reform seeks to boost the number of members to speed up the investigation of medical complaints in the best interest of the public.

But why does the government insist on doubling the number of lay members instead of adding to the number of doctors in the council?

Currently, the medical council is composed of 28 members, of which four are lay members and the rest are doctors.

The new proposal will bring the total number of members to 32, of which eight will be lay members.

The protesting doctors, supported by medical students, said such a composition is meant to challenge the professional autonomy of the council through political intervention.

However, several victims of medical blunders and professional incompetence as well as some pro-democracy politicians supported the government proposal in a bid to improve the council’s efficiency in the investigation of malpractices and similar incidents.

The government has been suffering from a shortage of doctors in the public sector, and it wants to recruit qualified overseas doctors to fill in the gap so that the public would spend less time in queues for medical services.

However, local doctors strongly oppose the idea because of the potential competition from their foreign counterparts.

There is no doubt that such a policy will benefit Hong Kong people. But it is not that simple.

Under Leung’s administration, which is known to give priority to the interests of China, sometimes even at the expense of Hong Kong, the reform is seen by some political observers as a way to open the doors for mainland doctors to work in Hong Kong.

Given that all doctors working in the territory need to secure their license through the council, some observers suspect that Leung wants to lower its standards to allow more mainland doctors to come to the territory, or even exempt them from additional requirements.

If such speculation is true, then lawmakers should go over the medical council reform bill with a fine-tooth comb before putting it to a vote.

Allowing more mainland doctors to come to Hong Kong could be a big issue affecting Hong Kong people, given that we have no sufficient knowledge of the level of their competence and professionalism.

We have heard of many cases in the mainland where doctors refused to provide treatment or undertake emergency procedures unless they get cash from the patient’s relatives.

Also, many Hong Kong people have low levels of trust as far as mainland doctors are concerned.

Under the bill, the chief executive has its authority to appoint the lay members of the medical council.

While the eight lay members will not constitute the majority in the 32-member council, they could be treated as representing the chief executive and therefore could carry a bigger influence than their number suggests.

As such, if Leung, let’s say, wants an easier arrangement for the entry of mainland doctors into Hong Kong, the eight members in the council could, despite their minority status, influence the others to side with their position.

Such apprehensions may not be fair as the lay members in the council are expected to think independently regardless of the stance of the one who appointed them on any issue at hand.

But given Leung’s track record of working for the best interest of Beijing rather than that of Hong Kong, such apprehensions are not without any basis.

There have been instances where he is said to have appointed allies to independent bodies in order to achieve his political agenda in those institutions.

Take the case of the appointment of Executive Council member Arthur Li Kwok-cheung as chairman of the University of Hong Kong Council. As feared by many on the campus, Li became instrumental in rejecting the appointment of pro-democracy scholar Johannes Chan Man-mun as pro-vice chancellor of the university.

The bottom line is that many Hong Kong people do not trust Leung, and they are afraid that he may once again use his appointees to push his political agenda.

As such, you can’t blame the doctors if they suspect Leung, in pressing ahead with the medical reform bill, is trying to expand his influence into the medical sector, or probably even put the profession under Beijing’s control.

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EJ Insight writer