Hong Kong’s leader has approved of a recent decision to relax admission rules for overseas doctors, although the head of a doctors’ group said the change would only draw 30 extra doctors a year.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on Thursday that the vote by the Medical Council – Hong Kong’s authority for certifying doctors – was “at least a step forward.” On Wednesday, the body voted in favour of a government-backed proposal that exempted overseas doctors from an internship requirement, as long as they worked three years in the public sector and passed the licensing exam.

Carrie Lam. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

However, Lam and her health minister Sophia Chan both said that the effectiveness of the change remained to be seen.

President of the Hong Kong Medical Association Ho Chung-ping said the plan would help address the shortage of doctors at public hospitals – even though only 30 more doctors are expected to be added per year.

“Honestly, the number is just a drop in the bucket… but at least they will come,” Ho said on a radio programme. “Even if they leave for the private sector after three years, at least there are three years for us to catch our breath.”

Ho said the Medical Association will respect and cooperate with the voting results, though he will “stand firm” against any proposals that further lower the entry barrier, because of patient safety concerns. The Democratic Party, for example, had suggested exempting some overseas doctors from the licensing exam.

Ho Chung-ping.

Critics have also questioned whether the proposal was too lax, since it was the least restrictive one among the three proposals voted on.

“The ‘work’ did not specify whether it is clinical work, and we have some worries about whether there will be a loophole,” said James Fung, vice-president of the Hong Kong Public Doctors’ Association.

“The doctors did not get their qualifications in Hong Kong… this means the combination may result in a loophole where they do not have enough clinical experience.”

Kenny Mui, a non-doctor Medical Council member who represents a patients’ group, said he welcomed the proposal because it would help boost the supply of doctors overall.

Medical schools

On Thursday, the chief executive said that the city’s two medical schools – at the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong – had already upped their enrolment to deal with the shortage of doctors.

Some of the lecture halls were so full that students had nowhere to sit, Lam said. However, there were no plans to start a new medical school since it would “take a long time to address hardware and software issues.”

Hong Kong’s healthcare system has been hampered by a chronic shortage of doctors at public hospitals, with the Hospital Authority saying that it is usually in need of about 350 more doctors. The think tank Our Hong Kong Foundation put the figure at 11,000.

There are only 14,000 registered doctors in Hong Kong, meaning 1.9 doctors for every 1,000 people. The figure is far lower than the average of 3.4 in OECD countries.

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Holmes Chan

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.