A shot in the arm for overseas doctors

Editorial | Mary Ma 27 Nov 2020

It's encouraging to see the question of admitting overseas doctors being revived, and Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor's pledge to secure a breakthrough during the rest of her term is encouraging.

The issue has been put off for too long and must be tackled, the sooner the better.

After the pan-democratic opposition quit the Legislative Council en masse, the remaining lawmakers passed a non-binding motion urging the administration to allow overseas doctors to practice in Hong Kong via a friendlier pathway.

It's no surprise that the Liberal Party's Tommy Cheung Yu-yan moved the motion. Although his daughter and son-in-law are doctors in the US, it would be wrong to accuse him of having a conflict of interest.

For one, he has declared the connection all along and, second, his relatives are successful practitioners in the US.

A major stumbling block has always come - not from pro-establishment or opposition politicians - but, rather, from local doctors and their elected representative in Legco.

Don't forget that the reform attempt by the last administration was anesthetized by a medical constituency lawmaker who filibustered a bill to death.

During yesterday's question-and-answer session, Cheung again pushed the chief executive on the question.

It surprised me when Lam uttered a kind of timetable, starting with Hongkongers or their dependants who have trained and are practicing medicine overseas. Needless to say, most of these doctors would come from the UK, which has the largest number of medics with Hong Kong connections.

It is a good idea, and one I previously commended in this column.

Lam's reply marked a significant breakthrough in policy direction.

It's a good idea because, first, these doctors are properly trained to the standards that many of our senior doctors are familiar with - standards they achieved while still medical students in the UK.

Second, these doctors speak Cantonese and have no problem in communicating with patients.

Nonetheless, I am concerned that - given the time Lam has before her current term expires even though she is expected to run for another term - it is questionable if she can solve this long-running issue for good.

The two medical schools in Hong Kong have increased their annual intakes of medical students, but they must go through many years of training before they can join the hospital workforce.

As the local population continues to age, demands for medical services will keep rising.

The idea to start with Hongkongers practicing medicine overseas sounds great - and it is wise not to include mainland doctors. But can Lam eventually make it even without the time limit?

This remains an uncertainty in light of the strong opposition from local doctors, unless they are willing to drop their protectionism.

The SAR should lower the barrier to allow talent in.

As the administration encourages young people to look for job opportunities in the Greater Bay Area, it should also open the door to suitable professionals - and not just limited to overseas doctors.

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