HK’s public sector doctors taking ‘national affairs’ courses in China

In a widespread protest against the mismanagement of the Hospital Authority (HA), frontline doctors criticized the HA for sending staff to China to learn about its affairs with a public healthcare system under strain.

“I don’t see anything in the mainland Chinese healthcare system that Hong Kong needs to learn from,” said Dr Alfred Wong from pro-democracy doctor’s group Médecins Inspirés.

In a radio programme last month, he called for the HA to stop doing “meaningless things” to alleviate the workload of frontline staff.

The remark about Hong Kong doctors, whose time is valuable, having to attend the course on China’s national affairs has stirred an uproar and confused many in the city.

Medical staff working under HA have already been complaining about the long working hours and the understaffed public hospitals, triggering a protest that lasted for two weekends.

The public hospitals have long faced great demands for their services despite insufficient manpower. The HA says on Feb. 17, its public hospitals saw 5,461 accident and emergency first attendances and inpatient ward occupancy rate hit 110 percent.

What the course is about

The course in question is organised by the Liaison Office of the PRC in Hong Kong SAR. Known as the Course on National Affairs for Hong Kong Professionals, it is a one-week national studies programme for professionals from different sectors, including doctors.

The course is held in mainland cities such as Shanghai or Beijing. Lectures are given by mainland scholars and officials on the national systems and policies in different areas, such as healthcare reform. Visits to healthcare institutions in the mainland are also arranged.

“In 2017, eight doctors and three nurses took part in the course. In 2018, 17 doctors and six nurses did so. Other participants include medical specialists and non-medical administration staff,” the HA says, adding that the course takes place twice a year – one in May and another between October and November.

The HA revealed earlier that the participants are granted paid study leave for the course, with airfare subsidised by the authority and their expenses on meals, accommodation and transportation in Beijing borne by the Liaison Office.

The authority says it has nominated its staff to attend the course over the years, and the participants must obtain their supervisors’ approval after taking into account the work situation.

“Their participation in the course is on a voluntary basis and is subject to confirmation by their respective departments, Hospital Chief Executives and Cluster Chief Executives that the work and service will not be so affected,” the HA says.

The authority adds that the course aims to “enhance participants’ understanding of the mainland’s systems and policies in various aspects, including mainland’s healthcare system.”

Good or bad?

The policy of inviting doctors to take this course has been both praised and criticized.

“The course helps us understand better China’s healthcare system. It is particularly helpful in understanding how mainland doctors are trained and how patients behave. So when a mainland patient comes to us, we can better understand him/her,” says Dr Paul Shea who attended the course in 2005.

He says the five-day course cost him around $3,000 to $4,000 back in 2005. He used his annual leave and paid for the course himself.

Dr Shea also claims that the course is not brainwashing, as scholars from Tsinghua University also talked about the flaws in China’s healthcare reform.

“After all, an intellectual should take the initiative to understand China comprehensively to learn about its political, economic, social and healthcare systems,” Dr Shea adds.

He does not agree that the course steals away valuable human resources. “There are only a few doctors taking the course each time. How much damage can it cause?” he says.

But Civic Party lawmaker Dr Kwok Ka-ki has voiced his opposition to the policy. “The healthcare service is affected when there is one doctor less. When time is limited, consultation period for each patient is also shortened,” he said.

Dr Kwok also cites political purposes behind the course, accusing the HA of sending a certain number of staffers to take the course to be politically correct. He also revealed that doctors agreed to take the course as they worried it might concern their chances of getting promoted.

Dr Kwok calls for “an immediate stop to the course on national affairs for medical staff” to cope with the demand during the flu season, in addition to a suspension of unnecessary meetings and an increase in healthcare funding to 20 percent from 17.5 percent.