‘Birth tourism’ and Hong Kong’s hospital staffing crisis
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‘Birth tourism’ and Hong Kong’s hospital staffing crisis

Even before the touchy issue of pregnant mainland women giving birth in Hong Kong escalated, I think the problem of a lack of adequate medical staff in its hospitals was already a time bomb waiting to explode.

But even as the government began to impose limits on admission of pregnant women (or even ban them on some hospitals), the problem didn’t go away. Published reports of medical blunders often fanned the flames of public discontent over the government’s stance on this issue. Coupled with other mainland-related news headlines such as the D & G photo fiasco, child abduction rumors and even the seemingly simple simplified Chinese menu, the government is pushed further to act on a pressing issue.

If we look on a broader scale, it’s not just an issue on suppressing the clout of mainlanders in Hong Kong, it’s about the basic needs of locals put at risk. For a territory that currently enjoys fiscal surplus worth billions of dollars, the lack of staff to man these state-of-the-art facilities is a sad truth. Something has to be done to address public anger and resentment.

Although not yet in office,  newly-elected chief executive Leung Chun-ying’s bold proposal to ban mainland women from giving birth in private hospitals could earn much-needed support as he takes over CE Donald Tsang’s position. Doctors and nurses are likely to cheer this idea, but private hospitals may find this disappointing, considering that they may have invested in world-class facilities.

When my mother was recently admitted at Tseung Kwan O Hospital for a few days, I was impressed with the services and facilities offered even if the language barrier proved to be the most challenging part of that experience. I didn’t find it very obvious that there was shortage of medical staff though I was there only during visiting hours.

The boom in mainland women giving birth in Hong Kong spawned creation of agencies specializing in arrangement of documentation, maternity accommodation and hospital booking for mainland guests. The so called “birth tourism” industry is now a market estimated to be worth RMB3 billion (US$476,000). Giving birth in Hong Kong entails multiple benefits: permanent residence (legitimate use of Hong Kong’s public services), Hong Kong passport (which is more appealing for international travel) and others. So there’s no wonder that mainland parents are willing (and able) to spend just to secure hospital beds, thereby bumping off locals who don’t necessarily have the financial power.

But as a measure to discourage mainland visitors coming to Hong Kong for the purpose stated above, Mr Leung also warned mainland parents who wish to have a child born in Hong Kong for the sake of automatic right of abode that this privilege may not be guaranteed beginning next year.

The bottom line is Hong Kong really needs more medical professionals, whether mainland Chinese come and take hospital slots from locals or not. The city has low birth rate and rapidly aging population. Failure to address this need – despite plans to curtail use from non-locals – could prove disastrous for years to come.