Public hospital crisis: thinking outside the box

January 31, 2019 12:50
Our public hospitals are struggling to cope with the severe shortage of doctors and nurses. Photo: HKEJ

Amid the outcry raised by our staggeringly overworked doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has unveiled a one-off allocation of HK$500 million for the Hospital Authority (HA) to help it cope with the heavy workload during the winter flu season.

Despite the extra funding, what is particularly worth noting is a pressing and imminent crisis facing our public healthcare sector – the severe shortage of doctors in our public hospitals. 

It is against such a background that lawmaker Ann Chiang Lai-wan of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong suggested that we import doctors from overseas. 

At first glance, importing overseas doctors would appear justified.

Before 1997, medicine graduates who received their qualifications from institutions in Britain and other Commonwealth countries were exempted from sitting for registry examination and allowed to directly register as qualified doctors with the Medical Council of Hong Kong. 

Such exemption was scrapped after the handover. As a result, both overseas-trained and mainland medical graduates must sit for the notoriously tough licensing examination held by the Medical Council in order to practice legally in Hong Kong. 

So it appears that the easiest way for us to import foreign doctors is to reinstate the pre-1997 exemption. 

However, the problem is that giving preferential treatment to medical schools in Britain and other Commonwealth countries may sound “politically incorrect” these days. 

Nor would the current approach adopted by Singapore be applicable to our city. Most of the medical schools on the exam waiver list of the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) are European, US and Commonwealth tertiary institutions; only eight mainland universities have made it to the list.

Doctors who graduated from medical schools on the list who are specialists accredited by the SMC and have the required number of years of active clinical practice are eligible to become conditionally registered doctors in Singapore.

Adopting that same “double-standard” waiver is likely to give rise to political controversies in Hong Kong.

First of all, medical school graduates from prominent overseas universities are not necessarily interested in practicing in Hong Kong, particularly in our “war zone-like” public hospitals, while allowing mainland doctors to be exempted from licensing exams would inevitably lead to a confidence crisis among the local public.

Importing foreign doctors can at best be described as wishful thinking.

At the end of the day, in order to effectively address our acute doctor shortage, we have to step up our efforts at training local talent and build more hospitals that provide comfortable working conditions.

In the meantime, we think there is no harm for the government to think outside the box when it comes to training talent.

For example, the administration can consider establishing first-class medical and nursing schools in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area based on our city's standards that admit both Hong Kong and mainland students.

And graduates of these schools should be given priority for job openings in public hospitals in Hong Kong.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 30

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal