With more than 60,000 staff across Hong Kong, the Hospital Authority (HA) is like a town in itself. It needs 4,000 to 5,000 new staff every year to fill in gaps left by attrition, retirements and the opening of new services.
“We recruit many kinds of talent for a diverse range of services in both clinical and non-clinical categories. Every year we have to make sure we get in enough talent to keep the system running,” says Dr Derrick Au, head of human resources at the HA.
In recent years the HA – which has about 5,400 doctors and runs 38 public hospitals in seven regional clusters – has struggled to recruit a sufficient number of doctors and nurses.
Historically, the HA has replenished its ranks every year with medical graduates who join the public sector for one-year internships and then decide to stay on. The recent boom in the private sector, however, has seen the public sector suffer severe doctor shortages. Coupled with a declining number of medical graduates – only 250 now graduate a year – and the HA can no longer rely on fresh graduates alone.
“In the last decade the number of local graduates has gone down rather than up and supply has been behind for five to 10 years now,” Au says. He adds that an ageing population such as Hong Kong’s needs more and more medical practitioners to take care of it, as do hospitals which put into practice new medical advances and programmes.
The outlook is not as bleak as it might appear, however, as steps taken to increase the number of medical graduates come into effect. “Supply will ease by 2015. With 320 medical graduates a year we will be back to the 2000 level,” he says.
Presently the HA needs an intake of about 100 to 150 medical doctors a year on top of fresh graduates.
“It is an uphill battle to get the numbers we need,” Au says. The shortages have been most serious in radiology, obstetrics and anaesthesia, where turnover of as high as 10 per cent can cause crisis situations. Other specialities urgently in need include paediatrics, accident and emergency, and family doctors for general outpatient clinics.
The HA has had to resort to innovative ways of recruiting additional doctors, such as recruiting from overseas, which it started this year. So far 13 qualified overseas doctors have obtained approval from the Medical Council of Hong Kong to practice at the HA. The authority has also enhanced its part-time doctor scheme with good results, and now works with about 250 part-time doctors.
“We have also reformed and built-up the career structure for the more than 12,000 support staff that work in the wards. Now they have a clear job structure and opportunities to advance – if they want to develop, we train them. We try to be proactive in thinking how to make job opportunities more attractive,” Au says.
Orientation and support for new staff have also been enhanced. Departments have custom-made programmes, while managers are provided with a handbook to guide them. After basic orientation there is reinforcement through mentors and workplace supervision. “Our experience is that if they are able to work with us well in the first six months, they tend to stay,” Au says.
Continuing-professional-development programmes are also in place to ensure staff keep up with industry developments.
The HA’s mission is to help people to get healthy and stay healthy, with doctors working together with patients, rather than just simply telling them what to do.
Au is looking for applicants who are eager to learn and develop themselves and are interested in the health service. Communication is also very important. “Ours is a very fast-paced service. You have to communicate effectively, but it still has to be reliable and caring,” he says.