Hong Kong’s mandatory internship barrier to overseas doctors

The Medical Council of Hong Kong recently decided against a proposal to exempt overseas-trained doctors from a mandatory internship before they can practise in the city. The move drew criticism from political parties who believe the city’s health care system is already plagued by staff shortages and needs policies approved to attract, rather than discourage, medical talent from abroad.

The Medical Council last week failed to pass any plans that would relax the requirement on overseas practitioners, even as the Hospital Authority currently finds itself about 350 doctors short across multiple departments.

Back to Square One

Currently, overseas-trained doctors must pass a three-part licensing exam as well as complete a one-year internship before they can practise in Hong Kong as a fully registered doctor. The requirement discourages doctors from abroad from coming and working in Hong Kong, according to lawmakers and medical experts in the city.

Ted Lau, who was born in Hong Kong and did his high school education in the city, went to Australia and earned a Doctor of Medicine degree at the University of Melbourne.

After working in a Monash-based public health service for several years, he planned to return home to Hong Kong for a job in the healthcare industry so that he could be close to family and friends. He discovered, however, that  barriers in the city’s regulations were going to make working in his birthplace a very difficult option.

“The pass rates of the exams are very low, and the materials needed to be studied for the exams are almost equivalent to a six-year course,” he said.

Lau thinks the one-year internship required by the Medical Council makes the prospect of working in Hong Kong’s health industry very unattractive for overseas-trained doctors.

“Imagine you are an experienced consultant doctor and you need to be supervised by someone more junior. How would that make you feel?”

The one-year mandatory internship under the scheme that allows overseas doctors to become fully registered in Hong Kong forces trained doctors to go back to basics such as drawing blood from patients.

Lau believes such an internship is appropriate for someone training to be a doctor, but not for experienced doctors like himself.

“Given Hong Kong’s staffing crisis in the health industry, the city should do more to encourage experienced and skilled doctors to come work here, not the other way around,” he said.

People in the know, agree

Lau’s comments were echoed by Anthony Wu, former Hospital Authority chairman.

Wu, now a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, said in February that trained and experienced doctors from overseas should be allowed to work in Hong Kong without examination if they were of Hong Kong descent.

“When some doctors have already reached a certain level overseas, which is recognised worldwide, why do we need them to come back for another exam?” Wu asked on a radio programme.

Facing heavy criticism, members of the Medical Council will meet again on May 8 to look at different proposals to exempt groups of professionals from the internship.

Don’t upset the docs

However, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has cautioned against the said proposals and warned that such measures could cause “dissent in the medical sector”.

“We hope that we can sit down and discuss it. If we are talking about revoking the power (of the Medical Council) and opening the door widely (for overseas doctors), this would cause controversy,” Lam said.