SCMP Wednesday, May 24, 2000


Remedy needed

No amount of punishment handed out to a careless doctor can compensate a mother for the loss of her unborn child, and the unnecessary operation which deprived her of the chance of having more children. But she may find some small consolation in knowing that steps have been taken to prevent something similar happening to other women.

When doctors err, the damage is often irreversible. Being human, they do make mistakes. But in Hong Kong, medical blunders which arise through negligence or malpractice seem to appear with greater regularity than elsewhere. Furthermore, those responsible frequently get off extremely lightly in view of the dire consequences of their actions.

The case of the surgeon who removed the uterus of a pregnant patient is a classic example of how and why the Medical Council has earned itself a reputation as a doctors' protection agency. If it was not dominated by members of medical associations who clearly face a conflict of interest, the public might have more confidence in its findings. But the decision to discipline, in this case by means of a warning letter, has further damaged its standing. The letter will not even be gazetted, so in reality no blemish will appear on the doctor's record.

Perhaps it would help if the council had a stronger lay representation, rather than only four non-medical members. That would enhance its credentials as an independent body. When the new chairman, Dr Lee Kin-hung, took up his seat in February he pledged to disprove claims that doctors always protect their peers. He said his aim was to promote the image of the profession and implement reforms along the lines of the Harvard report on Hong Kong's health-care system.

Neither of these targets is any nearer to being reached after this decision, and that should be a matter of concern to all practitioners who want to see the reputation of their profession restored. After criticism of "sub-standard" doctoring in Hong Kong by the Harvard report's author, Professor William Hsiao, every medical agency should be striving to improve its work practices and public image.

In today's money-dominated world, doctors can be vulnerable to patients who see legal action as a way to make money. But those wrongly accused have little to fear. Unless the Medical Council begins to take a tougher stand over malpractice, it may well drive more patients to seek justice in the courts.