HC Surgical says 'impractical' in 2019 to further probe doctor named in SMC complaint

Moving forward, Dr Julian Ong will consult the majority of his patients at heartland centres owned by HCSS. PHOTO: DRJULIANONG.SG

SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - HC Surgical Specialists (HCSS) on Friday (April 24) explained that in early 2019, it believed it would be "impractical" to further investigate surgeon Julian Ong among its staff and patients, before the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) had provided its findings on a complaint against him.

A woman had named Dr Ong, whose private practice is a 70 per cent-owned subsidiary of HC Surgical, in the complaint she sent to the medical watchdog. She claimed that Dr Ong and another specialist, Chan Herng Nieng - who is not part of the HCSS group - had colluded to have sex with "vulnerable" female patients, after she saw offensive WhatsApp messages between the two men.

The woman also forwarded the complaint to other doctors, prompting Dr Ong to file a defamation lawsuit against her. He lost the suit in early April, and news of it sent HCSS's shares on an erratic ride last week.

On Friday, in response to the Singapore Exchange's (SGX) queries, HCSS said that Dr Ong informed the company of the SMC complaint on Feb 27, 2019.

Its management then took steps to assess the allegations in early 2019 and continued to monitor his behaviour "and were sensitive to look out for any other complaints or whistleblowing matters, of which none were noted".

Dr Ong further emphasised to the company that the accusations were untrue and one-sided statements made by an unrelated third party who was not his patient. He also mentioned that he had gotten confirmation from a third party referred to in the statements that the allegations were untrue.

The detailed contents relating to the WhatsApp messages and the SMC complaint were never made known to HCSS's board, until the written grounds of judgment was given at the conclusion of the lawsuit. This was because "Dr Ong wanted to keep matters relating to the suit private as it related to defamatory statements", HCSS explained.

In addition, there were no complaints filed by any of Dr Ong's patients, or any issues relating to him raised by any employee.

As such, the group's chief executive officer Heah Sieu Min and medical director Chia Kok Hoong were of the view in early 2019 that it would not be practicable to raise the matter to employees at Dr Ong's private practice as there was no indication of him "preying" on "vulnerable" patients to "take advantage" of them, HCSS said, citing the wording used in the woman's complaint.

On Friday, HCSS also disclosed that about 17 per cent of its group revenue in the half year ended Nov 30, 2019, came from Dr Ong.

His private practice, Julian Ong Endoscopy and Surgery (JOES), also contributed 13 per cent of the group's profit to shareholders in the same period, after adjusting for non-operating items such as fair value loss on financial assets at fair value through profit or loss and loss on disposal of investments in subsidiaries.

However, the board believes that a significant portion of Dr Ong's contribution to the group is due to "the benefits of being part of the HCSS group and the ability to take on the HCSS group's overall network, branding and resources".

The company clarified there has been no immediate financial impact since the lawsuit concluded.

Given the ongoing Covid-19 circuit breaker, it will be difficult to assess whether any material adverse financial impact to the group is directly attributable to the lawsuit due to any reputational damage and/or any reduction in JOES's contribution, HCSS added.

Before any consultation, Dr Ong must inform all his patients of the matters alluded to in the SMC complaint and obtain their consent to act as their physician, save for any emergency consultation.

On Tuesday, HCSS said Parkway Group has suspended the doctor's accreditation and clinical privileges at Mount Elizabeth Novena, Mount Elizabeth, Gleneagles and Parkway East Hospitals from April 20 until the SMC complaint is dismissed.

The suspension indicates that he cannot use the facilities in those hospitals. However, he is still able to practise from his clinic at Mount Elizabeth Novena, HCSS said on Friday.

Moving forward, Dr Ong will consult the majority of his patients at heartland centres owned by HCSS. In addition, he will use the facilities at an alternative hospital for inpatients, where necessary.

SGX also asked whether the firm has any contingent plans or planned course of action, in the event the medical watchdog takes adverse action against Dr Ong.

"Depending on the severity of the adverse action taken against Dr Ong, and when and the length of time such action is taken, the HCSS group will make the necessary assessment and reallocate resources to its other specialists," HCSS replied.

It added that the group has four other general surgeons - specialists who can perform endoscopy and surgery - while a fifth general surgeon will be joining on or around July 1, 2020.

This means the group is equipped with the resources and manpower to service its patients, including Dr Ong's patients, should an arrangement to transfer his patients to other specialists in the group be necessary.

The SMC is still looking into the complaint against Dr Ong and Dr Chan. The HCSS board said it is important to allow due process to "run its course", and will take into consideration the findings of the SMC complaints committee to determine if any further action needs to be taken.

In terms of disclosures, SGX asked the board to assess whether the lawsuit was material information.

HC Surgical said its board was of the view that "it was too preliminary and not material for disclosure" when the lawsuit was first brought to the board's attention, seeing as the lawsuit was taken out by Dr Ong as the plaintiff in his personal capacity and the outcome was still pending at the time.

The board reiterated that the company was not involved in the lawsuit, and that Dr Ong is solely responsible for any costs associated with the suit.

Further, Dr Ong is not a key executive officer of the group. As the matter was a civil case taken out in an employee's personal capacity, the loss of the suit would also not have a direct financial impact on the HCSS group, the board said.

It would also be "too preliminary" to disclose the matters until SMC provides its findings to Dr Ong, given that the complaint is an ongoing and confidential proceeding.

The board and nominating committee noted that Dr Ong's professional conduct as a specialist of the HC Surgical group "has not previously been affected by his personal conduct".

Also, prior to the SMC complaint, neither Dr Ong nor HC Surgical had received any complaints in respect of his conduct or the medical services he provided, and patients were "generally satisfied with his professionalism", the company added.

Shares of HCSS were flat at 39.5 cents as at 11.17am on Friday.

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