Medical council, tribunal ill-prepared to handle some cases fairly

The Court of Appeal said there was really no case against orthopaedic surgeon Lim Lian Arn. PHOTO: GLENEAGLES MEDICAL CENTRE
Orthopaedic surgeon Lim Lian Arn, who had been fined $100,000 by the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) for not telling a patient about the side effects of an injection, had the judgment set aside by the Court of Appeal.PHOTO: GLENEAGLES MEDICAL CENTRE

The Court of Three Judges' decision to set aside the conviction and fine imposed on Dr Lim Lian Arn is a refreshing reassurance of our fair and just judiciary system (Court clears doc fined $100k for not telling patient of side effects, July 25).

An ill-judged prosecution, an unwise decision to plead guilty and an unfounded conviction that led to a miscarriage of justice are a serious reminder that the disciplinary tribunal and the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) may be ill-prepared and structured to handle all cases of complaints with fairness and justice.

We give credit to SMC and its tribunal for making the right decisions many a time when errant doctors are rightfully penalised.

However, when voices of dissent from doctors arise whether through petitions or other channels, it pays to listen carefully and objectively. Obviously, it is not so much the number of doctors who petitioned but the sound reasons given in their petition that count towards making a just and well-founded decision.

The composition of the tribunal may seriously limit its ability to make sound decisions. For instance, when a disciplinary tribunal (composed of a non-expert clinician, a non-clinical academician and a legal officer) is guided by the poorly reasoned conclusion of a non-expert clinician and yet ignores the opinion of an experienced expert clinician, this just spells disaster.

A case with such unfortunate results did occur.

On the grounds of "serious negligence", the misjudged doctor suffered suspension which is a harsher penalty than a fine. Unfortunately, the petition from doctors came too late after the appeal.

Nevertheless, several of the doctors who petitioned were senior clinicians and experts in the specific clinical problem discussed. They clearly understand the difficulties and challenges of diagnosis and management of the clinical condition, especially during its stages of evolution. They disputed the ill-judged prosecution and unduly harsh penalty with sound reasons backed by experience.

SMC and its tribunal need to do some soul-searching, and shake up and shape up their structure and governance in order not to let injustice taint its track record.

It pays to listen to the doctors. They are on the council's side.

Ho Ting Fei (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2019, with the headline 'Medical council, tribunal ill-prepared to handle some cases fairly'. Print Edition | Subscribe