SMC working on sentencing guidelines

Watchdog says it had been looking into issue even before tribunal's suggestion last month

The Singapore Medical Council (SMC) says it is working on sentencing guidelines to help disciplinary tribunals decide on penalties when a doctor is found guilty.

The need for such guidelines was highlighted recently by a disciplinary tribunal, which found that the lack of such guidelines made its job more difficult.

In the case, a general practitioner in Bedok was fined $30,000 for failing to refer a patient, who had a corneal ulcer, to a specialist "in a timely manner". The patient lost most of the sight in her left eye.

At that time, the SMC told The Straits Times that it was "discussing and reviewing this matter".

Yesterday, it sent an e-mail referring to a commentary in this paper calling for such guidelines, and for them to be available soon, to say it was "aware of the need for sentencing guidelines". It added that it had been looking into the matter before the suggestion made last month by the tribunal chaired by Professor Walter Tan, a plastic surgeon and medical director of Raffles Hospital.

The SMC also said: "Given the serious implications of such sentencing guidelines, the myriad types and variations of possible misconduct, and the need to obtain a general consensus on the appropriate penalties, enough attention and time must be given to work on it."

The medical professional watchdog said that until such guidelines are drawn up, disciplinary tribunals can refer to previous cases as well as the decisions made by the Court of Three Judges in cases of appeals against the tribunals' sentences.

It said these have provided, over the years, valuable guidance on the appropriate penalties for various types of misconduct. The SMC added that since 2013, all disciplinary tribunals have had "a senior lawyer as chairperson, a lawyer member or access to a legal assessor for guidance in their deliberations".

When asked for his comment, Dr Chia Shi-Lu, head of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Health, said: "I am aware that the SMC is working on a more robust and transparent framework for tribunal penalties."

He said both he and other GPC members have received feedback from doctors "expressing their unease regarding some of the recent penalties that have been meted out".

Dr Chia, a senior orthopaedic surgeon at Singapore General Hospital, said that while his medical colleagues trust the impartiality of the disciplinary process, they are concerned by the lack of clarity on how penalties are decided.

A group of about 1,000 doctors had written to the Director of Medical Services at the Health Ministry in July to express its concern over the suspension of a doctor for failing to diagnose a rare disease.

The suspension had been upheld by the Court of Appeal.

Dr Chia added: "I hope that notwithstanding the complexity of the task, that the setting up of these new guidelines can be expedited."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 20, 2017, with the headline 'SMC working on sentencing guidelines'. Print Edition | Subscribe