15 December 2019
Medical workers in Hong Kong stage a protest in January to highlight stressful working conditions in the city’s public hospitals amid a manpower problem. Photo: RTHK News video/screenshot
Medical workers in Hong Kong stage a protest in January to highlight stressful working conditions in the city’s public hospitals amid a manpower problem. Photo: RTHK News video/screenshot

Time for HK to open new medical doors for its people

Just like last year, public hospitals across Hong Kong have been overcrowded with patients before and after the Lunar New Year holiday due to the winter peak season of seasonal influenza.

Severely overworked and deeply frustrated, nurses and doctors in the city’s public hospitals staged protests last month to protest about a “war zone-like” working environment.

It isn’t news that Hong Kong’s public hospitals have been suffering from a chronic shortage of healthcare manpower over the years. Yet it appears the society is still split over how to address this long-standing and pressing issue.

Some doctors’ representatives take the view that lying at the root of the acute short-staffing in public hospitals and clinics is the severe manpower imbalance between the public and private healthcare sectors.

As they have pointed out, while 80 percent of the city’s patients are seeking treatments in public hospitals, 80 percent of the qualified doctors in Hong Kong are currently working in either private hospitals or clinics.

Given this, they believe redressing the manpower imbalance between the public and private healthcare sectors can help resolve the current doctor shortage in the city.

Meanwhile, they are opposed to any plan to import overseas trained doctors into Hong Kong.

Nevertheless, there are also some doctors who aren’t against the idea of introducing overseas doctors into the city, but who also believe that there is a pressing necessity to curb public demand for healthcare service “at source”, i.e. reducing the daily quota of 150 one-way permits for mainland immigrants.

So, does Hong Kong really have enough doctors or not?

Well, numbers don’t lie. At present, there are only 1.9 doctors for every 1,000 citizens in Hong Kong, a ratio that is lower than that of the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan and Northern European countries.

As a matter of fact, overcrowding is not only a routine sight in our public hospitals, but also in many private clinics.

And given the scarcity of doctors in Hong Kong, the average consultation time for each patient is often down to merely a few minutes, thereby making a physician not necessarily able to get a thorough understanding of his or her patient’s condition.

Having said that, I just don’t see any harm in allowing overseas doctors to practice in the city, taking into account the interests of the public.

Former Hospital Authority (HA) chairman Anthony Wu Ting-yuk had earlier suggested that the government restore the pre-1997 practice of recognizing the qualifications of Commonwealth doctors and allowing them to practice in Hong Kong directly without having to sit for a licensing examination.

There is, however, this question: will such an arrangement raise concerns about “political incorrectness” within the Greater China area if the government revived the British colonial legacy?

Recently, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has weighed in on the matter, saying that she didn’t want to bring up the issue of whether to allow overseas doctors to practice in Hong Kong at this stage as she wants to avoid distracting the frontline medical workers from their daily busy work.

In other words, what the chief executive actually meant was that importing overseas doctors is a politically radioactive issue, and she’d rather not touch on it at least for now.

Nonetheless, the clock is definitely ticking when it comes to resolving the issue of medical worker shortages.

It is because population aging in Hong Kong has been continuing to accelerate in recent years.

According to the figures provided by the Census and Statistics Department, there were a total of 1.16 million seniors aged 65 or above in Hong Kong in 2016.

Some scholars have projected that by 2033, the elderly may account for one-third of the city’s total population.

While Lam has noticed the gravity of the problem of doctor shortages, she could risk missing the window of opportunity of resolving the issue by deferring discussions about it until “the time is ripe”.

As a result, the situation in the city’s public hospitals could possibly get worse and worse.

It doesn’t take any fortune stick drawing for us to figure out how overloaded and overwhelmed the city’s public healthcare system has become.

To address the crisis, the government must show the resolve to intervene decisively.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 9

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist