Interview with Donald Li, WONCA President

September, 2019

Donald Li, WONCA President, was recently interviewed by semFYC communications Pere Vilanova. The interview is an edited version of the original Spanish.

Where does your love for Family and Community Medicine come from?

In a way it’s a family thing, generation after generation we’ve been involved with Medicine and healthcare. My father was a doctor. I would say he was a true General Practitioner, because at that time there weren’t lots of doctors, and he had to deal with difficult situations. He was the first to conduct a Caesarian Section in Hong Kong! As a child, I grew up with this in mind. Service and care through time, the values of Family Medicine.

So, it is a sort of family heritage?

In a certain way it is, but the most impressive thing for me, and I think this is the place from where my passion for Family Medicine comes, is the relationship part. It’s the patients, those people who trust you.

"When patients become friends, it is an amazing thing."

I can see grateful patients, not only bringing gifts such as a chicken or vegetables or fruits, but sitting with me, sharing their fears, their anger and their happiness, and I can assure you, this is the most rewarding thing of our job. In a sense, I always make fun of the other specialists. If I were a patient and you were my surgeon, I would be very grateful for what you’ve done for me, cutting me up and fixing my problem, but I would hope that I never see you again. However, if you are my Family Doctor, I hope I will see you again soon and hopefully we can chat from time to time.

That is a privilege…

Exactly. It is a gift of the Family Medicine, and it comes from its values. I enjoy it.

What has been achieved in China in recent years?

I’ve been helping the Chinese development of Family Medicine for almost 20 years ago and we are moving forward, and achieving great outcomes.

Photo: Donald Li recently received the "World Outstanding Chinese Doctor award" - one of numerous he has been honoured with for his work in China.

Before 2012, there were lots of difficulties, we had lots of specialists, our GPs were untrained practitioners, and they had to face situations they were neither used to, nor ready to deal with.

About six years ago, the Chinese Government realised they had to invest more in Primary Care, because the healthcare system was not sustainable without a strong Family Medicine basis. So, the Government started inputting resources, changed the policy and made sure every major hospital had an available Family Medicine department. Gradually, the Government has allowed international Family Doctors to join the Chinese Primary Care system, and they have also invited specialists from across the world to travel to China and to teach.

In a certain way we’ve thus made use of the best from other systems, and we have used others knowledge to improve ours and to adapt it to the Chinese reality, so we could teach Chinese doctors to perform better within our society.

What are the main barriers for a Family Doctor in China?

Mainly the salary and position within society, compared to other specialties. But China is too big for everything to happen at the same time. There not enough Family Doctors in China for now - we are working on that. Our target is to achieve a workforce of half a million in a few years’ time, which is not easy, but we will do our best.

What about Traditional Chinese Medicine?

It is complementary to Western medicine. There are many things that the so-called Western medicine cannot deal with.. I’m quite interested in integrating both medicines, being aware of each one’s limitations. I believe this is the best way to work, knowing your limitations, knowing what you can do to work together, and when you can’t, and learning how to make life better. For me, this is the key to progress, that’s the way forward. We will see more progress in care and in holistic care when we can understand and make use of both medicines at a balanced level.

Are there enough Family Doctors in China right now?

Not for now. We are working on that. Our target is to achieve a workforce of half a million in a few years’ time, which is not easy, but we will do our best.

How does it feel to be the president of the WONCA World organization?

It is a very motivating and challenging task. WONCA World is a vast organisation full of passionate people, with young doctors, professors, researchers and general practitioners from hundreds of countries and who speak thousands of languages. I’m learning as much as I can from it.

For example, I was recently in Africa (pictured), at the WONCA Africa Conference, and we are wanting to work closer with them, because the challenges they are facing are huge and the population of Africa is growing rapidly. Our African colleagues are asking for training and tools.

WONCA can try to bring more balance on this planet, because medicine is also about solidarity, and about helping each other.

The Memorandum of Understanding with WHO was a major achievement for WONCA?

It was, and it still is. Thanks to this agreement with the World Health Organization we made sure that the words Family Medicine and Family Doctor – which were erased from the Astana declaration - are being taken into account at the highest level. WHO has recognised and has listened to WONCA’s voice, that’s a first step. Also, the fact that WONCA World’s opinion is being respected and that we are speaking at the international forums where decisions are being made, is showing that we are useful.

Music is one of your biggest passions. Do you believe you will have the time to play cello and clarinet again before retiring?

Unlikely. I don’t think I will be having free time until then. I will listen to it for sure. Now, it is true I spend some time cooking. I love it. It is a very good way to stay creative, and to produce something special you can then share with someone else.