North Lantau symptom of health dilemma

Editorial | 27 Nov 2017

As Director of Audit David Sun Tak-kei slammed the underuse of North Lantau Hospital, he brought an absurdity to public attention.

While management is blamed on the one hand, the absurd situation has much more to do with the acute shortage of doctors and nursing staff that has plagued the local public heath-care system for years.

The public treasury is brimming - more than enough to provide quick fixes to problems that money can solve. Unfortunately, doctors cannot be turned out as quickly as wished. Unless Hong Kong is willing to tackle the shortage from a new perspective, the North Lantau Hospital won't be the last hospital to be "empty."

Even if new ones are built, they wouldn't be staffed as required.

In his report, Sun pointed out that one fifth of the area at North Lantau Hospital remains empty, and some 120 in-patient beds planned for commissioning last year, and specialist services due to start even earlier aren't yet available.

It's a shame. As the government reviews the issue of importation of foreign labor to alleviate the shortage of certain industries - such as home care for the elderly - it should expand its scope to include doctors.

Instead of treating their shortage on an ad hoc basis, it must make their importation a policy priority.

It may sound ironic. Had Sun been satisfied with North Lantau Hospital conditions, that would have meant fewer doctors and nursing staff at other hospitals, since they would have to be drawn from existing facilities.

Evident in the fiasco is the need for a systematic approach to cure the shortage.

If it was absurd to leave 20 percent of the hospital space empty, and two thirds of the planned hospital beds unoccupied, wouldn't it be even more ridiculous for those at the top of the local medical profession to remain opposed to their overseas peers coming to practice here although they're as competent as the local doctors?

It's hard to comprehend why Hong Kong should close its doors to professionals who possess the skills and knowledge so direly needed here. It defies common sense.

As Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee commented on the wastage at North Lantau, she hopes the situation will improve when a fresh batch of students graduate from the two medical schools in 2018-2019. However, is she really confident that the problem will then be solved for good?

Instead, it would be more convincing if Chan can come up with a policy initiative to lure in foreign medical practitioners. If Singapore can open its doors to doctors from recognized institutes outside the Lion City, why can't Hong Kong?

Protectionism displayed by leading figures of the local medical profession may serve their own interests well, but it comes at the expense of patients and their junior peers. An outcome of this selfishness is Lautau residents having to travel to Kwai Chung for appointments - when they have a hospital right in central Tung Chung.

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