The Singapore Medical Council (SMC) has promised to reduce delays in prosecuting errant doctors, following criticism by the Court of Three Judges in a recent case.
The court had remarked on the "inordinate delay" in prosecuting gynaecologist Jen Shek Wei for professional misconduct.
The SMC ascribed the delay to a "confluence of various factors", including the time taken to probe the complaint and prosecute the case.
"The SMC... will continue to refine its processes to reduce delays," it said in response to queries from The Straits Times. It added that it had already taken some steps in this direction earlier this year.
Last week, the court dismissed Dr Jen's appeal against an SMC disciplinary tribunal which found him guilty of removing a patient's left ovary without her informed consent, and of advising her to remove a mass from her ovary without adequate evaluation or investigation of her condition in August 2010.
The disciplinary tribunal suspended Dr Jen for eight months and fined him $10,000 last year. On appeal, however, the court held that Dr Jen's suspension should have been doubled instead.
But the sentence was discounted in order to reflect the "inordinate delay" of three years it took for the SMC to issue the notice of inquiry in July 2015, and the total of about six years for the case to reach the appeal hearing from the date of the complaint in 2011.
The SMC told The Straits Times that a complaint against a doctor is first probed by a complaints committee (CC) comprising two senior doctors and a layman, who take up the case on a voluntary basis.
The investigations in Dr Jen's case, including interviewing witnesses and seeking expert views, took 15 months. Once the case was referred to the disciplinary tribunal, solicitors were engaged, and medical records reviewed, and the process took another 20 months.
The SMC said that some parts of this process could have been shortened, and it would try to ensure greater efficiency in future cases.
It added that the tribunal took around 18 months to hear the case over several tranches and come to a considered and reasoned decision.
The SMC said it "appreciates the need to expedite fair and just disposal of medical disciplinary cases while exercising due care and even-handedness".
"Some of the steps taken since early 2017 include improving the complaints process to help CCs address complaints more easily and providing stronger secretarial support to the CCs to expedite the investigation process." It said the effects of these new measures would take some time to kick in.
Dr Jen, 62, who has been in practice for 28 years, had faced two charges following a woman's complaint in 2011 that he had advised her to undergo surgery to remove a pelvic mass without carrying out further evaluation and investigation of her condition when further assessment was indicated.
In the operation to remove the mass on the ovary, he had instead removed her left ovary without her informed consent, which breached SMC guidelines. The patient, a 34-year-old finance manager, found out only when she saw another doctor.
Asked by The Straits Times about the six years taken to conclude the case, Dr Jen said: "Of course it has affected me, it is like a guillotine always hanging over my head."
The employees at his clinic are looking for new jobs as he will be suspended for eight months.