The practice of medicine must evolve with the times, and is necessarily ever-changing. How we change the practice of medicine is heavily dependent on new evidence gleaned from scientific discoveries as well as subjective factors such as patient expectations and even doctor’s expectations. These are not necessarily bad things
But change in medicine is never ever a good thing when the change is driven mainly by a change in medico-legal climate. Especially when these changes are fueled by fear and anger, whether they may be on the patients’ part or from the doctors’ perspective.
As we all know, fear and anger are two of the most powerfully evocative emotions in the gamut of feelings that the human race can muster. Fear and anger are two emotions that are often used by populist and irresponsible politicians to get more votes in election campaigning. Fear and anger, together, has a life of its own and spreads like wildfire.
But this is exactly what doctors are experiencing now in Singapore in the wake of the $100,000 fine by SMC on Dr Lim Lian Arn. Fear which has led to anger which in turn is feeding the original fear.
On 30 Jan 19, SMC issued a public statement of clarification of case, stating that “Doctors are not expected to inform patients of all possible complications”. This is helpful. But it is not enough. Let this Hobbit elaborate. We need to directly address:
- Fear and anger over what is expected of the doctor to obtain an effective informed consent
- Fear and anger over the magnitude of the fine ($100,000)
Fear and anger over what is expected of the doctor to obtain an effective informed consent
In short, the laundry list described in the charge and the Grounds for Decision was perceived to be setting a new standard of care. Thankfully, the 30 January 19 Statement by SMC has addressed this by saying a doctor doesn’t have to inform his patients of all possible complications. But it does say that “however, the DT indicated that it would be good clinical practice to document in the case notes that a patient had been informed and was agreeable to the injection, a proposition which no doctor would reasonably disagree with……; the Decision merely reminds doctors that they should document the fact that they have explained the treatment or procedure and the patient’s consent”.
Questions from this (also reasonable) Hobbit for the genius who drafted this document:
- Must I document every “treatment or procedure” that I had explained to the patient and that he had consented? Treatment includes simple stuff like prescribing drugs, CRIB (complete rest in bed) and applying dressings. Every time you remove a urinary catheter, chest tube or drain, it is a procedure (let alone inserting one).
- How does a junior doctor in charge of say, half the ward (about 15 to 20 patients) do this and have time for lunch and go to the toilet? Remember, every drug is a treatment, and practically everything you do in a ward is a procedure other than bathing and feeding the patient and bringing the patient to the toilet.
- Does the person who drafted this understand what resources it entails just to achieve his one landmark sentence of “the Decision merely reminds doctors that they should document the fact that they have explained the treatment or procedure and the patient’s consent”?
Essentially, there are three “Categories” of activities a doctor prescribes or performs in vast numbers every working day:
- Treatment and procedures that require written consent from the patient
- Treatment and procedures that require documentation of verbal medical advice and patient consent in the casenotes
- Treatment and procedures that do not require written consent or documentation
In the past, the vast majority of treatment and procedure belonged to the last Category. We don’t document that we had explained the possible complications of most simple procedures or drugs and that the patient had consented. Now it appears that the default option is Category 2 instead – we have to document almost everything.
Can someone in SMC have a discussion with the Ministry of Finance on how Singapore will fund the resources needed for this new level of documentation?
For the avoidance of doubt, this hobbit thinks a H&L injection should fall under Category 2. But most daily procedures and treatments actually should remain in Category 3 and not be pushed up to Category 2.
One should not make sweeping statements like “a proposition which no doctor would reasonably disagree with” unless one really understood the practice of medicine as it happens on the ground given the resources this country allocates to healthcare. This new standard of documentation may already have happened in Beverly Hills, California, but it doesn’t happen here often at all, and certainly not in the public healthcare system.
Experts and “Expertism”
Much has been said about the expert opinion in this case. The Complaints Committee (CC) and DT accepted the expert opinion of what is the standard of care to be applied. It has been said often that the CC and DT did not act without expert advice and opinion.
This hobbit believes:
- The answers you get depends on the questions you ask
- People behave differently when they are labelled as “experts”. They have to display behaviour befitting that of experts (I call this “expertism”).
- The SMC DT should concern itself with what constitutes basic or minimal behaviour that can be considered as NOT being guilty of professional misconduct, and not apply standards of good or best practice in disciplinary proceedings.
- The SMC lawyer should likewise concern itself with establishing that the doctor failed to meet minimal standards consistent with professional misconduct and NOT good or best practice
The laundry list of complications that appeared in the charge and the Grounds of Decision was that of good or best practice, but not minimal ethical standards. Were the experts asked to give minimal standards or good or best practice? Even if they were not so asked, did the experts feel inadvertently compelled to give good practice standards because they were asked as “experts” – i.e. they had to display “expertism” in their answers?
Perhaps, when next time an expert is consulted, it should be specifically stated he is being asked to give minimal standards, below which, the doctor should be considered to be guilty of professional misconduct.
We should take a leaf from licensing of healthcare institutions. MOH licenses healthcare institutions such as hospitals so that they can provide health services. These are minimal standards. If these hospitals want to do better, they can go for accreditation such as the JCI accreditation scheme. But the two are different and we should not conflate them. Licensing ensures a minimal standard, accreditation puts in place good or best practices. Similarly, doctors are licensed because they are fit to practice and they are fined or they have their practice license suspended or taken away because they fail to meet these minimal standards of ethics and competence, not for higher or aspirational standards.
Paradoxically, “expertism” is easier to put in place than setting of minimal standards. One doctor describes this as “Google Medicine”. An expert can search for the list of complications on the Internet and furnish it to SMC in a matter of minutes. It is actually more difficult to decide what are the minimal standards one must achieve to obtain and maintain licensing. A good comparison is that of a Head of Department assessing residents: It is easy to decide who are the good residents who regularly impress you, but it is difficult to decide whether you would want to sign up and pass a marginally or poorly performing resident or not.
Fear and anger over the magnitude of the fine of $100,000
In this hobbit’s first column on this matter, he failed to mention a very important fact – statutory fines, such as the $100,000 fine by SMC, are not covered by medical indemnity schemes. Whether the fine is $1000 or $100,000, the doctor has to pay the full amount to SMC. A $100,000 fine is painful for even the richest doctor in Singapore, but it is financially crippling to many junior doctors such as residents and junior specialists.
Don’t get me wrong, fines should be punitive in nature. That’s why they are fines and the threat of this fine drives a person to behave correctly. But when the amount is so large such that it becomes an existential threat to the professional and the risk-reward ratio doesn’t makes sense to the professional, then a different type of behavior ensues.
In a market economy like ours, what options does any rational person do when he is faced with a financial penalty that is so large it becomes an existential threat? Let’s take the H&L injection as an example –
- He tries to insure it away. As aforesaid, this is impossible, and he has to pay the fine out of his pocket
- He tries to price-in the risk. The correct risk premium is probably out of reach of at least 70% to 80% of Singaporeans. For doctors in the public sector, they have no pricing power, because prices are set by the hospital or polyclinic administrators and doctors are paid a fixed salary and not paid for office procedures. The only people who can price in the risk and who have patients who are willing to pay the risk premium risk are the private specialists, who probably only serve the top 20 to 30% of Singaporeans. H&L injections will continue to be offered in this limited segment.
- He avoids the risk by not offering this service altogether. This is probably what has happened and most Singaporeans will find it more difficult to get a H&L injection nowadays than compared to a few weeks ago.
In case people in power do not understand (because they are probably the most well paid people in this country, let this hobbit state clearly – a $100,000 fine is an existential threat to a medical officer or resident, a GP or even an Associate Consultant.
The vast majority of people living on this island will now be deprived of a simple procedure that is effective, very safe and was cheap.
Frankly, if I were still a young polyclinic Medical Officer with student loans to pay, I would stop giving H&L injections because a $100,000 fine would bankrupt me. It doesn’t matter if the $100,000 fine was for lack of informed consent or lack of documentation of getting an informed consent. The fact is, I cannot take the risk. Ask any professional risk management consultant and he will tell you that assessing any risk is not just about assessing the probability of incurring punishment but also related to the severity of the consequence (in this case, the punishment of $100,000).
The same goes for other junior doctors who perform all these high-risk procedures in the wards on a day-in, day-out basis. Fortunately, our junior doctors continue to display high degree of professionalism and dedication to their patients.
But the bottom line is – when the penalty is cripplingly great and the reward remains small, (because you cannot price-in the risk), most doctors (and most human beings actually) want CERTAINTY of avoiding the penalty. This is basic and rational behaviour. And the only certainty is not to offer the service. Any human being with average intelligence will come to this conclusion.
The fact is the Lim Lian Arn case has set a new standard for penalties. This issue has not be addressed at all by the 30 January 19 Statement by SMC.
It is interesting to note what Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat wrote today in the major newspapers “(a Zaobao reader) is right to caution against creating a public service culture where “Doing more means making more mistakes, doing less means making fewer mistakes; and if we do nothing we will make no mistake”. That would be the most serious mistake we could make”.
This is probably what has already happened in the ‘medical’ service culture now with regard to H&L injections given what has happened in the Lim Lian Arn Case: Do nothing, and so make no mistake.
That brings us to the issue of externality effect or “externalities” in short. This is a commonly-used term among policy wonks and economists. Wikipedia describes externality the cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit.
We are where we are today because of the Externality Effect. If everything that happened in the Lim Lian Arn case only applied to Dr Lim, no one would be flustered. But in the Common Law system that we inherited from the British, precedents and case law matter a lot to all of us. While SMC is not exactly a court, but their Grounds of Decision serve as precedents and “case law of sorts” for future SMC cases.
Therefore these aspects of the LLA case have externalities (whether cost or benefit) that we, the medical profession at large, did NOT choose to incur:
- How the charge (the laundry list of complications) was drafted
- The suspension of five months that the SMC lawyers asked for
- The fine of $100,000 which Dr Lim offered and which was accepted and the reasons for not imposing a suspension
- The reasoning for the conviction and sentencing as given in the Grounds of Decision, including the effectiveness of any mitigation factors, if any
- The need to document almost everything as given in the SMC Statement dated 30 Jan 19.
To this hobbit, the ONLY benefit or positive externality effect the profession derived from the Lim Lian Arn case is that not all cases of (lack of) informed consent will end up with a suspension and a fine may suffice (albeit a big fine).
The externalities of this case extend not just to the medical profession, but to ALL healthcare professionals that carry out procedures and prescribing and dispensing of treatment, including dental surgeons, pharmacists, physiotherapists, TCM practitioners etc. The magnitude of fines may differ, but the principles and effort of getting an effective informed consent should not vary much. For example, the TCM practitioner-patient cannot be less deserving of a less patient-centric advice process than a patient seeing a Western Medicine doctor, right?
The Limitations of SMC and the Government
A lot of criticism has been levelled at the SMC members, the SMC lawyers, the Complaints Committee, and the Disciplinary Tribunal recently. The four parties are often conflated in discussions but actually they function quite independently.
The first question to ask is, what gives SMC the right to even exist, and to investigate and punish doctors? The answer is the Medical Registration Act (MRA) which is passed by Parliament. Parliament passes laws like the MRA. Then the MRA is administered by MOH and SMC. The SMC’s power to publish the Ethical Code and Ethical Guidelines (ECEG), to punish and extent of punishment is provided for in the MRA. So in a sense, the SMC’s DT also has the power to interpret the SMC Ethical Code and Ethical Guidelines as well as the MRA itself. But like all laws in Singapore, the FINAL power to interpret any law or the final arbiter of any law does not rest with a ministry or a statutory board but the Courts. That is why the patient, doctor or SMC lawyer can all appeal to the Court of Three Judges (Sometimes five) if they are unsatisfied with the DT’s judgement. The Court of Three Judges always consist of High Court or Court of Appeal Judges, and sometime may even include the Chief Justice himself.
So in a sense, the SMC DTs and the SMC lawyers must take guidance from the learned Judges when they pass judgment on SMC appeal cases brought before them. In recent years, a few precedents or case laws which may or may not have a bearing on the Lim Lian Arn include:
- The Courts have on more than one occasion asked that SMC metes out more severe sentences to doctors
- In the SMC vs Ang Peng Tiam case, a lifetime of good clinical practice record is NOT an effective mitigation plea. In fact, being senior may work against you. The only effective mitigation plea in this case was that there was a delay by SMC in processing this case.
- In the Hii Chi Kok vs London Lucien Ooi case (Which is NOT an SMC Case, but a case brought by the patient directly against the surgeon through our Courts), the Modified Montgomery (MM) Test was first confected and applied. The MM Test will apply to all medico-legal cases (including SMC cases) in this country to test how medical advice is offered.
Of course, what these cases demonstrate and instruct are principles. Whether these principles are correctly applied (as the Judges would have wanted it) on the ground is a big question.
For example, is the five-month suspension or $100,000 fine appropriate in this case, given that “ there is nothing to suggest that the complications experienced by the Complainant were in any way permanent or debilitating” (Grounds of Decision, Para. 57)?
In the Grounds of Decision, it was recorded that the SMC lawyer asked the DT members to “not to give any weight to the mitigating factors such as the potential hardship to the Respondent (i.e. Dr Lim) arising from the conviction, the testimonials, character references and acts of community service and the Respondent’s long, distinguished track record”. (Para 33 of the Ground of Decision). In fact, it was recorded in para 27 of the same Grounds that had Dr Lim not submitted an early plea of guilt, the SMC lawyer would have asked for six to 8 months of suspension.
This hobbit wonders if this severe stance by the SMC lawyer was in some way influenced by what had happened in the Ang Peng Tiam case that was brought before the Court of Three Judges?
Also, in the indirect application of the MM Test through the drafting of the charge, should a laundry list of complications of a H&L test be listed out?
On 7 Feb, The President of the Pharmaceutical Society of Singapore, Ms Irene Quay wrote in a letter to The Straits Times, “it is important for the Ministry of Health (MOH) to provide clear guidance on the extent of informed consent for low-risk medications or medical procedures if the modified Montgomery Test is to be applied”.
To be fair to the government, MOH did not ask for the MM test to be confected or applied. That was the decision of the Judges. In fact, the Attorney General (AG) Chambers specifically asked for the Bolam Test and Bolitho Addendum to be retained in their submission to the Court of Appeal in the Hii vs Ooi case. But the Court of Appeal decided that the MM test will replace Bolam and Bolitho in Singapore on matters pertaining to medical advice.
I guess MOH and SMC are as much trying to understand what stiffer penalties mean and how should the MM test be applied in day-to-day medical advice situations when they administer the MRA. They can issue guidance, but it will be very challenging to have “clear” guidance when they didn’t come up with the MM test in the first place.
Who And What Are We Trying to Deter?
The main purpose of the SMC is to protect the public from bad doctors and in doing so, also serve justice. At the individual level, patients who have been harmed by doctors guilty of professional misconduct deserves justice from the SMC. Justice has to be done, and has to be seen to be done.
Some have argued that stiffer penalties are necessary today to deter more doctors from practising medicine such that public confidence in the medical profession is not eroded. This is called deterrent sentencing. It is meant to deter others from committing the same act of professional misconduct and the objective of this is termed “general deterrence”. General deterrent sentencing is an intended potential externality. This is in contrast to “specific deterrence”, in which sentencing is targetted at preventing the specific doctor from erring again.
If you look at the latest SMC Annual Report, 12 doctors were given letters of warning and another 23 were given letters of advice. 12 cases were brought before Disciplinary Tribunals and concluded in 2017, of which two are pending appeal before the Court of Three Judges and two cases were concluded without any punishment for the doctor. Eight were actually censured and/or punished in some way. These numbers have been rather stable in the last 10 years. Even if we assume the worst-case scenario in which the two cases pending judgment before the Court of Three Judges will actually be punished in the end, the number for DT cases in which doctors will be found guilty of professional misconduct is 10.
Assuming that general deterrent sentencing is effective, how many doctors do we think we may have deterred from behaving in a bad way? Let’s give this a generous multiple of 10. 10 times 10 is 100. In other words, we have deterred 100 doctors from behaving in a bad way such that he is guilty of professional misconduct. By the same factor of 10, another 350 doctors or so would have been not served with letters of warning of advice because of the deterrent effect of stiff penalties.
The rest would not have committed the offence anyway, because this hobbit would like to believe most doctors in this country are still ethical and professional ones.
But in the fallout from the Lim Lian Arn case, thousands of doctors are now deterred from giving a H&L injection, a safe, simple and cheap procedure that would have benefited many tens of thousands of patients: Just because one patient wasn’t properly counselled and hence did not give an informed consent and thereafter she suffered complications that were not “permanent or debilitating”?
So we need to ask, who and what are we deterring? Do the cost-benefit numbers add up and make sense for the greater good of society?
The Chief Justice said in his speech at the opening of the 2016 Legal Year: “Medical care is of direct concern to all Singaporeans and we must act to avoid a situation where the practice of medicine comes to be adversely affected by the medical practitioner’s consciousness of the risks of malpractice liability.”
This “consciousness” has already come to pass in Singapore. The “situation” is already unavoidable.
This hobbit does not see any conclusive way out of the current problematic situation unless new laws are drafted by MOH and passed by Parliament to restore a more sustainable practice environment, not just for doctors, but for all healthcare professionals, and ultimately for the patients as well.