Doctor tricked into giving confidential info on patient with mental problems

Dr Soo Shuenn Chiang, director of the Neuroscience Clinic at the National University Hospital, gave confidential information about a patient's condition to her brother when he phoned the clinic posing as her husband in 2015. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - The director of the Neuroscience Clinic at the National University Hospital (NUH) has been fined $50,000 for breaching medical confidentiality.

Dr Soo Shuenn Chiang, a psychiatrist, gave confidential information about a patient's condition to the woman's brother when he phoned the clinic posing as her husband in 2015.

The man claimed that she was suicidal and needed to go for an assessment at the Institute of Mental Health.

Without verifying his identity, Dr Soo wrote a memo that included confidential medical information for the man to pick up from his clinic.

Dr Soo had treated the woman for adjustment disorder with depressed mood and alcohol misuse. She had a history of depression and was at risk of self-harm.

The man submitted the memo to a Family Court and obtained a personal protection order against the patient.

The patient then filed a complaint with the Singapore Medical Council (SMC), which convened a disciplinary tribunal to hear the case.

The charge against Dr Soo, who pleaded guilty, said his "conduct amounted to such serious negligence that it objectively portrays an abuse of the privileges which accompany registration as a medical practitioner".

It said that a reasonable and competent doctor would have obtained the name and identity card number of the man, and checked it against the patient's records. If her husband was not listed, he should have called and checked with the patient.

An unnamed expert witness at the hearing, an associate professor who is chairman of a hospital's medical board, said that given the circumstances, Dr Soo did the right thing in disclosing the woman's medical condition without her permission, since he was trying "to get expeditious help" for her.

However he should have verified the identity of the person before releasing the memo to him.

The SMC's counsel said: "The confidentiality of a patient's treatment and medical records is a fundamental tenet of medical practice and maintaining the privacy of patients at all times allows patients to seek medical help and discuss their conditions freely."

As the memo was about her mental health, it was "highly sensitive" and "potentially stigmatising" and the disclosure "is irreversible and cannot be undone". It caused the patient much distress.

The SMC asked that the doctor be fined no less than $20,000.

Dr Soo's lawyers, on the other hand, said the fine should not exceed $5,000 as it was "an honest oversight" as he was seeing 17 patients that day.

They said it was also not clear whether the personal protection order was issued because of the contents revealed in the memo.

The tribunal, however, decided on a penalty of $50,000, a censure and a written undertaking not to repeat the offence. Dr Soo was also ordered to pay the cost of the proceedings.

The tribunal said that a breach of patient confidentiality is a serious matter and of considerable importance. It justifies a sentence "which will serve as a general deterrence".

A heavy penalty also sends a signal to potential offenders "that punishment will be certain and unrelenting for this type of breaches and offenders".

Had Dr Soo tried to verify the caller's identity, either himself or through his staff, and was still deceived, it would have been a mitigating factor, the tribunal said.

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