Hong Kong’s authority for certifying doctors has voted in favour of a government-backed proposal to allow more overseas doctors to work in the city.

The winning proposal exempted overseas specialist doctors from an internship requirement if they have worked for three years in the public sector or medical schools, and have passed the licensing exam during that time. After that, the doctors would be free to practice under any public or private sector employer.

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The proposal was put forward by Grace Tang of the University of Hong Kong and was considered to be the option favoured by the government.

The Medical Council failed to reach a consensus at a meeting last month, when secret-ballot voting resulted in all four proposals being rejected. On Wednesday, the council adopted a knock-out voting system with openly cast ballots.

Members reportedly did not discuss the original four proposals, but only the three amended ones that were submitted after the failed vote. After a five-hour meeting, the winner was chosen by a 17-16 split with the Council’s chairman Joseph Lau casting the tiebreaker vote.

The two rejected proposals, which had a high entry barrier, were backed by the Medical Association and patients’ rights group Patients’ Voices respectively. Critics of the government-backed proposal said that it was too lax, because overseas doctors could obtain licenses without having done clinical work in Hong Kong.

Joseph Lau Wan-yee
Joseph Lau Wan-yee.

Hong Kong’s healthcare system has been hampered by a chronic shortage of doctors at public hospitals, with the Hospital Authority saying that about 350 more doctors are needed at any given time. The think tank Our Hong Kong Foundation put the figure at 11,000.

Some have questioned whether it was necessary for all overseas doctors to go through Hong Kong’s licensing exam, especially if they came from high-ranking, reputable institutions. However, the licensing exam remained in the proposal chosen by the Medical Council on Wednesday.

Hong Kong currently allows qualified overseas doctors to apply for “limited registration,” a renewable three-year contract that allows them to practice in the city without taking a licensing exam. However, it restricts them to working in specific institutions such as public hospitals and the two medical schools.

Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said in February that there were 124 foreign doctors working under limited registration – but only 12 work at public hospitals.

Sophia Chan
Sophia Chan. Photo: RTHK Screenshot.

“Our first step is to relax internship requirements for specialists, and then we hope to attract more doctors with different profiles and experience,” Chan said previously, adding that changes to the system should be gradual.

Hong Kong currently has over 14,000 registered doctors, with around 6,300 doctors employed by the Hospital Authority.

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Holmes Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He covers local news with a focus on law, politics, and social movements. He studied law and literature at the University of Hong Kong.