Medical Council approves plan to ease rules for foreign doctors

May 09, 2019 15:29
Professor Joseph Lau, as Medical Council chairman, cast an extra vote to break a tie and allow the body to reach a decision. Photo: HKEJ

The Medical Council of Hong Kong has finally approved a plan to ease requirements for overseas-trained specialist doctors to work in the city, a move that is expected to alleviate the severe manpower shortage in public hospitals.

The council, which oversees the registration of medical practitioners in Hong Kong, had earlier rejected four proposals seeking to relax internship requirements for non-locally-trained specialist doctors to be able to get a full license to practice in the city.

But it allowed members to vote on three new proposals during a meeting on Wednesday, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reported.

Before the meeting began, there was some discussion as to whether the vote would be on the three new proposals or the four proposals that had been rejected in April plus the three new ones.

But the council later agreed that the four earlier proposals were contradictory to the three new ones, so they decided to set aside the old options.

Council members then thoroughly examined the wordings of the fifth, sixth and seventh proposals and discussed them with relevant legal advice, before submitting them to a vote.

The voting was conducted in an open fashion rather than through secret balloting used in the previous meetings. It started only at 6 p.m., or four and half hours after the meeting commenced.

All 32 members of the council attended the meeting. The first round of voting ended up with the fifth and the seventh proposals both receiving 15 votes, with the sixth proposal getting only one vote.

A second round was held for the fifth and seventh proposals, only to see the same situation again: they each got 16 votes.

A final decision was made after Professor Joseph Lau Wan-yee, the council’s chairman, cast his extra vote for the seventh.

The proposal was made by Professor Grace Tang Wai-king, honorary clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), and was seen as the one supported by the government.

Under the proposal, overseas specialists can get a full license as long as they have worked for the Hospital Authority, the Department of Health or medical schools in Hong Kong for three years and passed a licensing examination, without having to complete an internship.

Lau revealed after the voting that he, as a professor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong's (CUHK) medical school, cannot stand to see academic and research excluded from the scope of clinical experience and therefore he decided to support the more relaxed seventh proposal.

While Lau expected the proposal to take effect about two to three weeks from now, he admitted there is no guarantee that relaxation can help attract a large number of foreign doctors to apply for work in Hong Kong.

Welcoming the council's decision, Secretary for Food and Health Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee said the passed proposal was more lenient, fair and non-discriminatory, and expressed optimism that it would achieve its aim, RTHK reported.

The proposal is just one of the ways to alleviate the shortage of doctors in the public health care system, Chan stressed, adding that she will meet with stakeholders next month to discuss other measures to boost manpower in the sector.

The medical faculties of HKU and CUHK, the Hong Kong Academy of Medicine, and the Hospital Authority (HA) all welcomed the council's decision.

An HA spokesman said there are currently “12 non-locally-trained doctors working in public hospitals to relieve the manpower pressure” in the specialties of anesthesia, cardiothoracic surgery, emergency medicine, family medicine, internal medicine and radiology and there are 14 non-locally-trained doctors who have been assessed to be eligible for recruitment.

Since April this year, the scope of the limited registration recruitment scheme has been expanded to all specialties at the rank of service resident as well as non-locally-trained specialists at the rank of associate consultant in eight specialties: anesthesia, anatomical pathology, cardiothoracic surgery, otorhinolaryngology, obstetrics and gynecology, ophthalmology, radiology and nuclear medicine, which face a significant shortage of specialists, the HA said.

Meanwhile, the Frontline Doctors' Union said in a statement that council's decision means allowing foreign specialists not to have to work in public hospitals and therefore it does not help in addressing the manpower shortage.

Dr. David Lam Tzit-yuen, vice-president of the Hong Kong Medical Association, said he is worried that the passed proposal may have loopholes.

He reminded the council to be very careful about the quality of foreign doctors to be licensed to work in the city.

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