SMC applies to High Court for more time to appeal against disciplinary tribunal fine of doctor

It is the second time this year that the Singapore Medical Council has made such an appeal to the High Court.
It is the second time this year that the Singapore Medical Council has made such an appeal to the High Court.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE -The Singapore Medical Council (SMC) has applied to the High Court for more time to appeal against the decision of a disciplinary tribunal to fine a doctor $50,000.

It is the second time this year that the medical profession watchdog has made such an appeal, after a similar one last month against another tribunal's decision to fine a different doctor $100,000.

No such appeals had ever been made previously and in both cases, the time for either side to appeal had passed.

In both cases, the tribunal's judgments prompted doctors here to speak out against what they see as a major step back in how they care for patients, leading them to sign petitions to the authorities expressing their unhappiness.

The SMC is asking for the penalty to be reduced in both cases.

Tribunals, made up of doctors and legally trained professionals, are convened by the SMC, after which point they operate independently.

In the latest case, Dr Soo Shuenn Chiang, who was an associate consultant psychiatrist at the National University Hospital (NUH) at the time of the occurrence in March 2015, had given a memo on a patient's medical condition to a man who posed as her husband. He had said he needed the memo to move her to the Institute of Mental Health, as she was suicidal.

 
 
 

But the man was in fact her brother, and he used the memo to take out a personal protection order against the patient. She filed a complaint to the SMC against the doctor.

The SMC had asked for a $20,000 fine but the tribunal set it at $50,000.

The tribunal blamed the doctor for not verifying the identity of the caller before handing over the memo containing the patient's confidential medical condition. It said patient confidentiality is sacrosanct.

The petition, which has garnered close to 9,000 signatures, said: "Dr Soo was the Good Samaritan who acted in his professional capacity to help someone access mental healthcare promptly.

"Most of us in his position would have done the same in the same manner because we are doctors aiming to heal, not investigators aiming to verify truth."

It added that doctors, fearing reprisals, might no longer dare to speak to a patient's caregiver in case doing so is seen as a breach of confidentiality.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) said a few days ago that it was aware of the petition and is looking into the case.

Meanwhile, the NUH made a police report against the imposter on Wednesday (March 13).

The SMC issued a statement on Thursday announcing its decision to appeal against the judgment.

Last month's similar appeal asked the High Court to reduce the penalty for a doctor who had been fined $100,000 for not telling the patient about the side effects of a common steroid injection.

In this case, the SMC had asked for a five-month suspension.

Doctors who protested that judgment said many of them do not tell patients of side effects as these are both rare and transient.

They argued that if they needed to tell patients of all the side effects of all the medication they are prescribing, it would be an information dump of little use to patients.

The SMC statement said its application for this case to be reviewed has been granted and a hearing by a Court of Three Judges is scheduled for the second quarter of this year.

SMC president, Professor Tan Ser Kiat, said on Thursday: "The SMC understands the potential wider implications of the tribunals' decisions on the practice of medicine in Singapore, and the challenges and pressures faced daily by doctors in their work environment."

He promised that the council will periodically review and refine the complaints and disciplinary process "to maintain the public and the profession's confidence".

The SMC set up a Sentencing Guidelines Committee in January to help tribunals arrive at appropriate penalties.

The MOH announced on Thursday that it has set up a workgroup to carry out a comprehensive review on two subjects: the taking of informed consent by doctors and the SMC's disciplinary process. The group is made up of doctors, lawyers and laypeople.