The Singapore Medical Council (SMC) has perhaps demonstrated how out of touch it is with doctors' working conditions on the ground by imposing a hefty fine on a doctor for doing his job and trying his best to save a patient from potential self-harm (NUH doc fined for sharing patient's info, March 7).
When someone calls up, speaking urgently and claiming to be the husband of a patient who is known to be capable of self-harm and tells the doctor that she is planning to harm herself, would any doctor doubt the caller and waste precious time calling up that patient's file to do a contact check?
What if there are no details of the caller in that file?
The delay in trying to identify the caller could potentially cost the patient her life.
Would the doctor be let off the hook if the caller turned out to be genuine, the patient successfully committed suicide, the relatives complained about the doctor's inaction, and his defence was that he refused to entertain the caller because he was only following the ethical guidelines?
In this case, the doctor himself was a victim of deception. It is unjust to fine him the princely sum of $50,000 for doing what he sincerely believed to be the right thing.
In hindsight, it is easy to accuse him of not taking precautions before releasing the patient's medical information, but it is certainly not as easy as the SMC tribunal believes to see through the deception, given the doctor's hectic clinic schedule and need to make a quick judgment call in a potential life-and-death situation.
Heavy fines and harsher punishments should be reserved for genuinely egregious cases where the doctor's intentions are clearly proven to be in the wrong.
They should not be used to punish honest mistakes made with good intentions, or in the course of providing the right treatment.
Andrew Yam (Dr)