HK urgently needs more overseas talents to ease doctor shortage

April 01, 2021 06:00
Photo: Reuters

Hong Kong’s shortage of doctors is becoming increasingly acute. The latest official statistics show that there will be a deficit of 1,610 doctors in 2030, a surge of 60% from the 1,007 projected three years ago. The city has 1.9 doctors per 1,000 people, significantly lagging behind Singapore, where the ratio is 2.4 to 1,000. Hong Kong needs 3,000 more doctors to bridge that gap.

In last year’s policy address, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said that she had always supported the relaxation of restrictions on the return of foreign-trained doctors. She was keen to introduce policies that would encourage overseas doctors to practise in Hong Kong, for example, by allowing Hong Kong residents or second-generation Hong Kong emigrants with medical backgrounds to return to the city. Last month, the Government proposed to allow permanent residents who graduated from a certified medical school outside Hong Kong to practise in the public sector for a longer duration, without being subject to licensing exams, and the public sector experience will eventually qualify them for full registration. Our Hong Kong Foundation believes that the Government should stop creating hurdles for non-local doctors, as the UK, US and Australia are also granting exam exemptions to attract doctors. Meanwhile, 40% of the doctors in Singapore have been trained abroad and exempted from local licensing exams.

Currently, non-locally trained doctors have to pass a licensing exam to become a registered medical practitioner in Hong Kong, but the pass rate remains low. Some people blame it on the inadequacies of overseas doctors. This is an ill-informed opinion. We attribute the low pass rate to the unrealistically high exam threshold, which is in need of reform.

A Hong Kong resident, who studied medicine at a prestigious UK academic institution, has long aspired to return to Hong Kong to serve the local people, but failed the licensing exams twice. He is feeling discouraged, ‘I took part in the exams for foreign-trained doctors. They covered a wide range of subjects spanning a five-year medical course, but the questions were as difficult as those in a specialist exam. I graduated from a reputable medical school in the UK and have six years’ experience as a practitioner, but still find the exam questions exceedingly difficult. I deemed it unjustified to invest further in the preparation for these exams. Even if I pass, I have to work as a trainee for a year. Returning to Hong Kong to practise seems to ask for trouble.’

‘Passing the exams is not everything; clinical experience is also important.’ The doctor is a psychiatrist, with expertise in a special population and extensive clinical experience. The fact that he was turned away at a time when there is a shortfall of hundreds of psychiatrists in Hong Kong is an indictment of our policy, which has been oblivious of the urgent need to attract overseas talents.

In fact, most doctors in Hong Kong’s public sector have become too overwhelmed to properly perform their professional duties. Many have become frustrated and moved to private practice. It is therefore necessary to encourage foreign doctors to work in the public sector, to ease the shortage and stop the talent drain, so that staffing in the public sector can be restored to a healthy level.

The challenges of working in our healthcare system and the impossibly high standards of licensing exams provide little incentive for foreign-trained doctors to return. ‘My parents and family are in Hong Kong, so the main reason I want to return is family reunion,’ said the Hong Kong doctor practising in the UK. Therefore, when considering the admission of overseas practitioners to Hong Kong, the Government and the general public should focus on valuing expertise and attracting foreign talents with well-designed policy, especially prioritising specialists who are in short supply, so as to cope with the mounting demand for healthcare from an ageing population.

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Managing Editor at Our Hong Kong Foundation.