Coronavirus: Docs in public sector must limit work to one hospital

A photo from Feb 4, 2020, shows people with masks at the link bridge to Tan Tock Seng Hospital.
A photo from Feb 4, 2020, shows people with masks at the link bridge to Tan Tock Seng Hospital.PHOTO: ST FILE

Doctors in the public sector will have to restrict their work to one hospital, while patients and healthcare staff should also limit their movement across different healthcare premises.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) has sent this directive to public hospitals in a bid to reduce the risk of cross-institutional transmission of the coronavirus.

It kicked in on Monday and applies to all public hospital staff.

Responding to queries from The Straits Times, an MOH spokesman said that while public hospitals remain committed to offering essential services such as treatment of coronavirus and emergency cases, non-urgent treatments and appointments are being progressively deferred where clinically appropriate, to allow hospitals to focus on essential services.

MOH said patients with existing appointments do not have to change hospitals. But patients who are seen by a visiting consultant from another public hospital will be affected. MOH has started contacting these patients to postpone or reschedule their non-urgent appointments. Those who require urgent treatment will be transferred into the care of another specialist with the current public hospital.

The measure startled some patients who were not prepared for it. A patient who turned up for her appointment at Outram Community Hospital this week was told that another doctor will attend to her as her usual doctor from Singapore General Hospital has been confined to treat patients at SGH. "I was quite taken aback because I was told about this only when I reached the hospital," said the compliance manager, 29, who wanted to be known only as Ms Lim.

Said the ministry: "We will be working closely with the healthcare institutions to explore various means for this to be carried out effectively without impacting patient care and safety."

Healthcare professionals in private hospitals and specialist clinics have also been advised to similarly avoid cross-institutional movement, said the ministry. It is not mandatory for them at this point.

Parkway Pantai, Mount Alvernia Hospital and Thomson Medical said they will be following MOH guidelines closely.

Said a Thomson Medical spokesman: "Should the restriction be implemented, we anticipate some impact to maternity patients, who will have to decide if they wish to follow their gynaecologist or the hospital of their choice to see to their maternity needs."

At Parkway Pantai, the biggest private chain with four hospitals including Mount Elizabeth and Gleneagles, staff doctors in its employ - usually accident and emergency doctors or radiologists - will be restricted to one facility, similar to government hospitals, said Dr Noel Yeo, chief executive of Mount Elizabeth Hospital.

But specialist doctors can choose up to two Parkway Pantai hospitals at which to treat their patients.

In a circular sent to the doctors, they were told they have up to noon tomorrow to declare their primary and secondary sites of practice.

The restriction takes effect from next Monday.

On concerns that private sector doctors can still move between two hospitals, Dr Tan Chi Chiu, a gastroenterologist with a clinic at Gleneagles Hospital, said that private hospitals may not have as full a suite of services each as public hospitals and some specialist doctors may have to cross hospitals to provide essential services.

"Should MOH specify strict segregation subsequently, then of course all private doctors and hospitals will have to further restrict themselves, just like during Sars. It was inconvenient and many patients couldn't be easily seen but patients and doctors understood the need for this and willingly cooperated."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2020, with the headline 'Docs in public sector must limit work to one hospital'. Subscribe