SCMP Tuesday, April 17, 2001

Medical Council has lost touch with the public

The Medical Council is now on trial in the court of public opinion, after it cleared surgeon Tung Hiu-ming of misconduct for using a mobile phone while conducting an operation. The statutory body has a very serious case to answer, as it has apparently failed to live up to the spirit, if not the letter, of a set of ethical goals it has laid down for the profession.
In recent years, the medical sector has attached great importance to communicating with, and soliciting support from, patients and the public, so much so that the concept of public confidence has even been written into the council's professional code of conduct.
In the introduction to its code of conduct, the body pledges: "The task of the Medical Council in the exercise of its powers is not only to discipline its members but to protect the public where necessary; to seek to maintain public confidence in the profession; and in its widest sense to maintain the integrity of the profession."
The 30-clause document even includes a section entitled: The Need for Good Communication and Information. Noble objectives aside, the council has obviously been suffering from a complete communication breakdown with the majority of the community. As a result, its integrity has been compromised and public confidence in it sapped.
In the face of strong public criticism, council chairman Dr Lee Kin-hung complained in public that residents had been misled by biased media reports and comments. But challenging the trustworthiness of its critics and the media will do little to resurrect the council's own credibility.
He and his fellow council members repeatedly stressed that the hearing in question was a marathon session lasting about 14 hours. They insisted that any person who had sat through the entire session would have appreciated the council's objective conclusions. That is quite an impossible onus on members of the public.
In fact, the eagerness and ability to crystallise a complex issue in a manner easily comprehensible to laymen has now become a prerequisite for professionals and public-office holders.
The council members are clearly deficient in this regard. Instead, they have been harping on about how the public has supposedly fallen victim to substandard media accounts. Yet, so far, the council has not bothered to post a statement on its Web site. Instead, one member of the panel investigating the case has reportedly contributed an article to the message board of the Hong Kong Public Doctors' Association, mocking the complainant. Since then, the electronic forum has turned into a battleground for verbal abuse between supporters and opponents of the Medical Council.
The controversy has attracted even more calls to the radio stations than the arrogant way in which the Americans have defended their flying missions to spy on China. The panel has been given, and wasted, many a chance to exonerate itself on air.
The council might have some valid reasons to argue that what the doctor did was not serious enough to constitute professional misconduct. However, the defensive way in which it has been arguing its case can hardly inspire confidence that it would "protect the public where necessary".
The council has vowed "in its widest sense to maintain the integrity of the profession". Integrity is a perceived commodity. To achieve this it is imperative for it to mend the fences with the public. Revisiting the preamble of its own professional code of conduct may as well be the first necessary step.
Andy Ho ( ) is a political commentator.