Judges say 'broader issues' raised in SMC's appeal for psychiatrist to be cleared for breaching patient confidentiality

Dr Soo Shuenn Chiang, a psychiatrist at the National University Hospital, had been charged for giving a memo on a patient's medical condition to her brother, who posed as her husband.
Dr Soo Shuenn Chiang, a psychiatrist at the National University Hospital, had been charged for giving a memo on a patient's medical condition to her brother, who posed as her husband.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Does a hospital doctor have a professional duty to personally verify the identity of someone claiming to be a patient's family member before releasing medical information to that person?

The question was raised by the court on Monday (July 8) during an appeal by the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) for National University Hospital psychiatrist Soo Shuenn Chiang to be acquitted of professional misconduct for breaching patient confidentiality.

The court, comprising Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and Judges of Appeal Andrew Phang and Judith Prakash, noted that there were broader issues raised on whether such verification was a doctor's duty or an administrative procedure.

Last year, Dr Soo pleaded guilty before a disciplinary tribunal for releasing patient information without verifying the identity of a man who claimed to be her husband.

On March 20, 2015, the psychiatrist received a phone call from a man who said the patient was suicidal.

Dr Soo then wrote a memo, which contained the patient's medical information, referring her for an assessment at the Institute of Mental Health.

He left the memo with his staff, with instructions that it should be passed to the patient's husband.

The caller turned out to be the patient's brother, who used the memo to support his application for a personal protection order against her. The woman filed a complaint to the SMC against the doctor.

Dr Soo paid the $50,000 fine imposed by the tribunal and did not appeal.

 

The outcome of the case, published in March, resulted in an online petition which argued that Dr Soo had been trying to help the patient. The petition garnered thousands of signatures.

On Monday, lawyer Chia Voon Jiet, acting for the SMC, asked for Dr Soo's conviction to be quashed as it was unsafe.

He argued that new evidence, including a statement from the patient's brother maintaining that he did not claim to be her husband over the phone, cast serious doubts on the factual basis on which Dr Soo pleaded guilty.

Mr Chia also said that Dr Soo was justified in having done what he did, given that it was an emergency.

In a report before the tribunal, SMC's expert witness largely vindicated Dr Soo's actions.

However, the expert said Dr Soo had shown a lack of care in verifying the identity of the person collecting the memo.

This led the judges to question what were the systems in place and whether doctors at public hospitals are expected to personally carry out such verifications.

The court adjourned the case, giving the expert four weeks to submit a further report, in light of the fact that Dr Soo had left the memo with his staff.

The court will deliver its decision after receiving the report and Dr Soo's response.