Expand scope of healthcare alerts

To increase early warning alerts on the spread of infectious diseases, a task force headed by Minister of State for Health Chee Hong Tat has recommended protection for whistle-blowers in healthcare settings.

The rationale is that people who are on the ground might be more aware of what is happening. Giving them an avenue to report such outbreaks anonymously could encourage more people to do so.

The task force was set up in the wake of the hepatitis C spread in the wards at Singapore General Hospital (SGH) which affected 25 kidney patients and possibly caused some of the eight deaths there last year.

The recommendation is good, although it is a sad reflection of the state of healthcare institutions.

It means either that healthcare staff who notice something wrong do not feel they should raise it to their superiors; or that, if they do, their superiors do not act on the information. Hence, the need to bypass the normal hierarchy to allow them to report directly to the Ministry of Health (MOH).

Giving whistle-blowers anonymity is not necessarily a good thing as it could lead to abuse, with people making false reports either because they are upset with their bosses or simply for the fun of it.

But all things considered, it is definitely better to have such an avenue to report possible outbreaks. To make it work, there must be follow-through action when reports are made. It may be good to extend the hotline to the public, as patients and their families may also be more attuned to such happenings.

There is also no reason to limit the reporting to suspected outbreaks. Patients and healthcare staff should have an avenue to alert the authorities when things are not done properly. Yes, it could lead to a flood of complaints, but these can be filtered so that only deserving cases are attended to.

Getting the population to police a system will probably be far more effective than sporadic auditing by the authorities.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2016, with the headline 'Expand scope of healthcare alerts'. Print Edition | Subscribe