Why Hong Kong and mainland doctors are not created equal

July 25, 2015 08:02
More than half of the top scorers in Hong Kong's college entrance test are going to a medical school. Photo: HKU

Want to know the secret to an easy life and home ownership?

Marry a nurse.

That would make Helen (not her real name) a prize catch.

With five years' experience, she makes HK$32,000 (US$4,113) a month after starting at HK$22,000 as a new graduate.

That may not look much, but next to the HK$14,000 median wage across all Hong Kong industries, it begins to stand out.

And for many average wage earners, the comparison doesn't stop there.

Many are beginning to think that being married to a nurse is a shortcut to a better life, if they can land someone like Helen. 

Medical jobs pay well, which is why they're highly sought-after.

More than half of the topnotchers in this year’s college admission test are going to a medical school, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.

Their first choice is the University of Hong Kong, which is ranked among the world’s top 30 by Quacquarelli Symonds, a British education services company specializing in overseas studies.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong also figures high in their preferences.

A medical resident makes a median salary of HK$70,490, plus a monthly allowance of up to HK$17,330, Secretary for Food and Health Ko Wing-man told a recent Legislative Council hearing.

The corresponding figures for an associate consultant are HK$96,150 and HK$33,119, respectively.

A full consultant could earn up to HK$136,550 per month, plus a HK$47,047 allowance.

The figures are from 2013 which means present salaries could be higher, adjusted for inflation.  

Private hospitals typically pay more, especially to attract government doctors and consultants.

St. Teresa's Hospital, for instance, once dangled HK$4 million a year on consultants from Tuen Mun Hospital.

It’s safe to conclude that a medical degree is a ticket to a good life in Hong Kong, with all the social perks and advantages that go with it.

But not in the mainland where a medical career does not excite its top academic achievers.

In Jiangsu, where almost 400,000 high school graduates sat this year's college entrance test, nine of 14 medical schools lowered their admission threshold due to lack of interest from prospective students, state news agency Xinhua reports. 

Fudan University’s Shanghai Medical College, one of China’s most prestigious medical schools, failed to recruit enough students, as did Shanghai Jiaotong University School of Medicine and Beijing's Capital Medical University.

Chinese students are flocking to business administration, public administration, economics, engineering, IT and international trade, according to the Chinese University Alumni Association.

The findings are based on a study of 3,000 top scorers in the college entrance exams in the past 37 years.

A medical degree could take five to six years and a lot of money given inadequate government grants and subsidies.

Almost always, salaries don't reflect the high cost.

A public hospital doctor made 78,000 yuan a year in 2013 treating 153 patients per week, according to the China Statistical Yearbook.

Plastic surgeons enjoy the highest annual pay at 186,000 yuan but others receive as low as 800 yuan a month. 

That is what an orthopedic specialist in a top Shanghai hospital gets and he tells me it's nothing short of disgraceful.

Doctors and surgeons like him often boost their income by taking cash gifts from drugstores, pharmaceutical companies and even patients.

But a withering government crackdown on corruption has considerably slowed the largesse.

Still, the orthopedist considers himself lucky. All in, he takes home about 15,000 yuan a month.

Mainland nurses, who are often compared to domestic helpers or nannies, are paid significantly less and account for the highest churn rate in public hospitals.

Low salaries aside, China's medical profession has other problems.

It's considered a dangerous occupation given the high number of cases involving conflicts, natural disasters, epidemics and medical tragedies.  

In rural areas, doctors might face hostility, even violence, if patients are not satisfied with the results.

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High school graduates take the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education examination. Photo: Vocational Training Council

EJ Insight writer