HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong's legislature on Thursday passed a law that allows overseas-trained doctors to practise in the Chinese-ruled city without taking a local licensing exam to ease a medical staff shortage, raising concerns over future healthcare standards.
Some see the legislation as a first step in replacing local doctors with those from mainland China, where there are concerns over health and safety standards, more than a dozen medical workers told Reuters in May.
Health Secretary Sophia Chan has said Hong Kong faces a serious shortage of doctors and the crunch was expected to "severely deteriorate" in the medium term.
"There’s a need to introduce a new way for more eligible non-local trained doctors to come to Hong Kong, to work in the public healthcare system, to expand our doctor bank," Chan told the Legislative Council, which has no opposition party.
The council passed the bill with 39 votes for and one against, coming from the legislator representing the medical sector, Pierre Chan.
"Most doctors are not worried about their jobs being taken away, most oppose the bill because they doubt levels can be maintained," he told the council.
Many countries around the world are facing doctor shortages amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but Hong Kong's problem has been exacerbated by medics leaving the city following the imposition of a national security law last year cracking down on dissent.
Strains between the 80,000-strong public medical sector and Hong Kong and Beijing officials emerged during anti-government and anti-China protests in 2019 when many workers supported pro-democracy causes, most visibly by treating protesters injured in clashes with police and staging demonstrations inside hospitals.
Dozens of healthcare workers have been arrested, including nurse Winnie Yu, the former head of the Hospital Authority's labour union, under the sweeping, Beijing-imposed, national security law.
The new licensing scheme, announced at the start of this year, allows doctors trained outside the former British colony to skip a decades-old compulsory exam seen as among the most stringent in the world.
It had initially been limited to overseas-trained Hong Kong residents and even then had sparked a backlash amongst many in the medical sector who believed it would lower health care standards in one of Asia's top medical centres.
Hong Kong's two doctors per 1,000 people ratio compares with an average 3.4 per 1,000 people among countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Government officials have dismissed worries about falling healthcare standards. A special registration committee will be set up to determine a list of up to 100 medical universities around the world for professional recognition in Hong Kong.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam has criticised medics for "politicising" government policies.
Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 with the promise of continued freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland. Beijing and Hong Kong officials deny the national security law impinges on those freedoms.
(Reporting by Jessie Pang; Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Nick Macfie)