【明報專訊】YESTERDAY the Court of Final Appeal (CFA) ruled on the dispute between the Hospital Authority (HA) and public doctors about the latter's work hours. It dismissed doctors' appeal about overtime compensation and the HA's about days off in compensation for on-call duty. Neither has won. However, the CFA ruling that doctors should be entitled to days off for off-site duties shows there is a shortage of public doctors. The HA and public doctors should put citizens' interests first. They should sensibly and responsibly work out a plan to tackle the problem without adversely affecting their services.
When a court hears an industrial dispute, it mainly has regard to employment legislation. For example, the definition of "rest day" the CFA referred to when it made its ruling about doctors' days off in compensation for their on-call duty is not one that suits the HA's book but one that is universally applicable. Though it is said the the CFA disregarded the nature of the HA's operation, its ruling reveals there is a shortage of public doctors. Nevertheless, when it dealt with the case, the CFA had to adhere to universally applicable principles. The ruling again shows a court's decision on an industrial dispute may well surprise both parties to it because the court is slow to have regard to "peculiar characteristics or circumstances".
Commenting on the CFA ruling on the dispute between public doctors and the HA, Secretary for Food and Health Dr York Chow said, "I thought from day one both had lost, for the dispute basically arose from the mistrust between doctors and the management. Consequently, they still have 'illnesses' that cannot be totally cured." It is apt for Doctor Chow to have used "illness" to describe the relations between public doctors and the HA. HA managers are members of the elite, as are public doctors. They are all medical professionals. However, they could not settle their differences by themselves and had to resort to litigation.
Public doctors have fallen out with the HA mainly because they distrust each other. Their relations bear on the public interest. We therefore maintain that they should promptly end the estrangement between them, try to trust each other and work together with one heart and one mind to serve the public. However, it takes both sides to build up mutual trust. As the saying goes, you can't clap with one hand. Therefore, both sides must be above board. Nevertheless, as they run the public hospital system, it is arguably more incumbent on HA managers to try to foster mutual trust. Some frontline doctors criticise the HA for disregarding their profession and say they have few opportunities to study abroad or get promoted. They say these are the main reasons why public doctors tend to do things by the book. It would help patch up its relations with public doctors for the HA to be aware of their concerns.
Because of the CFA ruling, public doctors are worried that the HA, not under pressure, may no longer work vigorously to reduce their hours. Since 2006, public doctors have worked shorter hours. That year 18% of the public doctors worked 65 hours a week or more. The percentage is 6% now. In 2006, 42% of them worked 55 hours a week. Now, only 29% do so. The situation is, one may say, improving, though it still falls short of public doctors' expectations. They aim at a 44-hour working week. In our view, the HA must not be slack about shortening their hours. It must strive to ensure that they will have a normal working week. Only if they do so can the quality of public hospital services be better guaranteed. Furthermore, it would go a long way towards building up mutual trust for the HA to do so.