Doctors' vote is but start of reform road

Editorial | Mary Ma 9 May 2019

The Medical Council met yesterday to resolve a deadlock on ways to make it easier for overseas specialist doctors to practice in Hong Kong.

Predictably, it dropped the internship requirement for doctors who have worked in the public sector or medical schools for three years and passed the local licensing examination.

The council had to produce a result or face a strong backlash from an angry public.

However, would the shortage of doctors at public hospitals be solved by simply doing away with the absurd requirement for overseas doctors to go through an extra internship after serving at public hospitals and sitting the local licensing examination?

That's most unlikely. The tiny step the council took could only be the beginning of a chain of reforms. It would be wrong for Secretary for Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee to feel content with the small progress made so far. She should take the matter further after yesterday's meeting.

There are plenty of precedents for Chan to refer to - if she and the rest of the administration are committed to tackling the manpower shortage that is already threatening the quality of public health care.

For example, Commonwealth doctors were recognized and allowed to practice here before the handover. Is it possible to restore the arrangement?

It should never be an issue as far as professional standards are concerned since, first, we're familiar with that system and, second, many senior doctors currently in the SAR also received their training in Britain or other Commonwealth countries.

If Chan finds it too politically incorrect to approach the Commonwealth for help, she may enlarge the pool to include doctors who have graduated from prestigious accredited schools in advanced countries. Singapore has successfully implemented such a model.

Chan should set her next aim at making it unnecessary for doctors from Commonwealth or prestigious accredited schools to take the licensing exam as their standards are already assured. Only then would overseas doctors - including many Hongkongers who received medical training in developed countries - be interested in working in the SAR.

The uncertainty is whether Chan has the courage to work toward that.

It's worth noting that at yesterday's vote, the method of balloting was changed. In the first meeting, which failed to produce a consensus, members ticked which option or options to back. The exercise flopped after none of the options gained backing from more than half of the members present.

Yesterday votes were held until one option with majority support was left.

That was an amazing shift in the way the vote was held.

Remember the council cited legal advice immediately after the first meeting to insist they had to adhere to the controversial multiple-choice format - even though it failed to yield an outcome?

Yesterday's balloting showed even so-called legal advice wasn't so rigid, as it was subject to interpretation.

Therefore, as long as Chan has a will, she will always have a way.

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