Random November Pickings

Heng ah.

The one key issue that has troubled if not bedeviled the whole nation in recent years has finally been resolved. Yes, I am talking about the fee benchmarks released by MOH Fee Benchmarks Advisory Committee.

“Kee Chiu” if you do NOT agree.

This hobbit will not talk again about how the SMA GOF either was killed by CCS or died after neglect by MOH. That’s all been discussed in previous columns. For the avoidance of doubt, CCS stands for Competition Commission of Singapore, not Chan Chun Sing.

A quick glance at the benchmarks gave the impression they were modestly generous. Some of the figures were better than what some TPAs and insurance companies were willing to pay previously. Of course, the figures were also substantially less that what some “star” surgeons and proceduralists were charging.

I met up with a few old classmates recently: an ENT surgeon and an interventional cardiologist. They lamented that their actual charges were even lower than the lower end of the benchmarks. This experience reinforced my belief that all my life I have been hanging around too many Cheap Charlies. I gotta stop mixing with such dubious company. But not before I get this ENT classmate to dig my ears first. He sucks our more ear wax from me than the cyber-attackers had exfiltrated data from the IHIS EMR.

Having the doctors’ fee benchmarks is a good thing. But it is not enough. There are two aspects to runaway healthcare costs: over-charging and over-servicing. Fee Benchmarks only deal with over-charging by doctors. How about healthcare facilities like hospitals and day surgeries? There should be fee benchmarks or guidelines too for healthcare facilities. And then there is over-servicing, which is often subtle and therefore harder to prove. Poor insurance design is often the problem behind over-servicing. All these have to be dealt with before healthcare inflation in the private sector can be brought down to manageable levels again.

Speaking of the cyberattack on Singhealth, the Committee of Inquiry (COI) hearings have more or less ended. We now await the Report by the COI. But the hearings were quite a shocker to say the least. It was literally such a jaw-dropping experience that my TM joint is now permanently subluxated. Let’s face it, IHIS makes SMRT’s “deep cultural issues” look as thin as popiah skin or tissue prata. Each day of hearing was met with cries of incredulous disbelief “Did the guy really say that”? There is so much head shaking and jaw-dropping, the healthcare community looks like a bunch of people high on designer drugs.

But we should have known better. Come on, the signs were all there all along in IHIS or its predecessors:

  • GP IT systems that never really worked well and went down well with GPs despite spending millions and millions on  their development
  • Many years ago, EMRX was launched based on implied consent and nothing much else (the patient was presumed to have read a poster and agreed to have his data shared on EMRX)
  • A NEHR design that did not give the patient privacy rights to NOT store data on the NEHR initially (this has now been apparently fixed, we don’t know for sure)
  • An IHIS Board that changed from having restructured hospital CEOs on it to other folks, that while the latter appear qualified on paper, they would not directly experience the pain when IHIS IT systems broke down
  • An IHIS CEO who also headed IT strategy and policy work in MOH

All these boils down to the fact that IHIS is an organisation that is designed culturally and structurally to achieve its aims with brutal singlemindedness. And the aims are often determined internally.

If you ask around, restructured hospital administrators will often tell you quietly that IHIS is not a joy to work with. You get the feeling that this organisation is not particularly enthusiastic about good governance or stakeholder engagement and empowerment. IHIS answers to MOH Holdings, not to the public healthcare clusters the IHIS was set up to serve.

So when a massive cyberattack occurs, the initial actions and responses of its key people on the ground reflect the culture and structure of the organisation. It’s as simple as that.

Finally, we come to the subject of web-based referral services. Apparently, there are companies that set up websites claiming to be able to help anyone get appointments to see doctors. Often this is ostensibly for free. And interestingly, their websites list just about every doctor registered with the SMC. Most of these doctors have never agreed to have their names listed on these websites. Some of these doctors have not practiced medicine for a long time, like doctors who are now full-time politicians (including ministers, no kidding).

Of course, many doctors are upset about this. The question we need to ask is what is in it for these companies and how do we regulate them. Apparently, by boasting a large database of doctors (i.e. practically the whole list of SMC-registered medical practitioners), they can tell potential investors they have buy-in from lots of doctors. This helps these companies to get richer valuations and raise money from unwise investors. The next thing is the patient’s request to see a particular doctor will likely prove to be unsuccessful (since 99% of the doctors on the list did NOT sign up with the company) and the patient will be given the recommendation to see the 1% that did sign up (“would you like to see Dr ABC instead of Dr XYZ?). In such instances, these companies will probably collect an admin/referral fee from Dr ABC.

The next question then is – how are these companies regulated? Answer: They are not. They are like TPAs (Third Party Administrators) or Managed Care companies. They are not regulated as a healthcare institution under the PHMC Act since they are not a licensed or licensable entity like a hospital or clinic. The Medical Registration Act, which regulates doctors through the SMC, also has no powers over such companies. Again, this is a lacunae in our health regulation framework that needs to be addressed.

For now, to the 99% doctors who did not sign-up with them, these companies are more of a nuisance than a problem like TPAs and Managed Care. But doctors should be aware of the pitfalls. For example, one such company provides video consultation services for patients 24-7 with a SMC-registered doctor. The SMC doctor should be very familiar with SMC Ethical Code and Ethical Guidelines’ position on telemedicine before he agrees to take part in such activities.

But still, there is apparently no law against a company publishing a “directory” of doctors’ names and claiming they can get an appointment for a member of the public to see any of these doctors on the list (which is essentially a directory of SMC-registered doctors). Even when I didn’t “kee chiu” for this.

I don’t know about you, but this somehow comes across like someone stuffed me like a Thanksgiving turkey.






Trick, Entreat

It had to come. Sooner or later. Like head lice or scabies when you live in the tropics and you don’t bathe for three months. “Making it harder for errant doctors to cheat” (The Straits Times, Opinion Page A28, 25 October) looks like another Salma Khalik hit job. It is also timed to be the journalistic equivalent of a Halloween trick or treat; designed to scare doctors and dentists by entreating the authorities to witch-hunt. She wants someone to clean up the houses of the medical and dental professions by writing this long opinion piece when all that is needed is for someone to pass Ms Salma a broom. This Hobbit happens to think she will look decidedly befitting with a broom. Preferably an anti-gravity one placed between the adductors.

Let’s first go back a little to 15 October 2018; in the article “Penalties are lower if doctors own up”, she wrote, “There is a big difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion. In avoidance, the person fully declares his income, but tries to pay lower taxes by using possible loopholes, such as setting up a company simply for tax breaks, or claiming personal expenses as legitimate business expense. The penalty for an “omission” is two times the taxable amount”

She moves seamlessly from tax evasion, tax avoidance to “omission”, giving the impression that the omission refers to avoidance. But actually, are they the same? Tax avoidance is NOT a crime or an offence. The person deemed to have committed tax avoidance by IRAS will be asked to pay up the difference between what he would have paid and what he actually paid and not “two times” the taxable amount.  The reasonable student of the English language on reading this, would probably infer that tax avoidance (like “omission”) is a crime and that it may be punished with a penalty of two times the taxable amount. No one really knows what is this omission she is talking about. Does omission equate to avoidance, or is she referring to evasion? Only she knows.

As for tax avoidance, the principle is simple – no one wants to pay more taxes if he can avoid doing so legally, just like you wouldn’t want to pay more for a pair of shoes if another shop offers the same pair at a lower price. IRAS is merely asking for information from some doctors and asking a few others to pay up for tax avoidance. If you agree to pay up, it stops there. There is no criminal record if you pay up. Has IRAS charged a doctor for a tax crime yet this year? Not that this hobbit knows of. And certainly, no doctor or dentist has been convicted of tax crimes this year yet.

In any case, with the obfuscating word “omission” in place, she launches her major offensive 10 days later with the aforesaid long opinion piece. Highly predictable; almost boring already.

Her strategy is to use the highly evocative and bewitching word “cheat”. She suggests many doctors and dentists are cheating, and gives a litany of examples: cheating Medisave money, cheating CHAS, cheating taxes, cheating insurance etc.

At last count, there are some 15,000 doctors and dentists in Singapore. Is there a cheating epidemic?  In the same article of 15 October, it was mentioned the last time a doctor was jailed for tax evasion was 2011 and he was subsequently suspended by SMC for four months. One case in 7 to 8 years doesn’t sound like an epidemic to me.

Then what is the whole point of her latest tirade against the medical and dental professions? Is she asking for

  • Stricter or better laws or ethical codes?
  • Better enforcement?
  • More punishment?

She seems to be saying that doctors and dentists should be held to higher standards when they commit tax offences because they are “not ignorant” and doing so out of greed. The first principle of law is that the law shows no preference to any group of persons. All men are equal under the law. The same standards and burden of proof applies to everyone. A doctor should not be more easily convicted of tax offences just because he has a MBBS degree. Likewise, a doctor or dentist should not be punished more for tax crimes versus say a banker, journalist, accountant, lawyer, hawker or taxi driver.

As for ethical codes, the latest SMC Ethical Code and Ethical Guidelines (ECEG) as well as the accompanying Handbook of Medical Ethics (HME) are two of the lengthiest and most detailed publications of this sort in the world. And SMC is already empowered to strike-off a doctor. What else is there? Lengthen the SMC ECEG and HME some more? Empower the SMC to give 10 strokes of the rotan?

The doctor or dentist already suffers from “double jeopardy” of being punished by the professional board for bringing the profession into disrepute after he has been also punished by the other authorities. If a journalist is found cheating on taxes, he pays the fine, and he maybe goes to jail as well. He doesn’t have a Journalist Board or Council to suspend or strike him off the Journalist Register because there isn’t such a thing.

As for cheating CHAS, well, last I looked, I signed a CHAS contract with a public sector Polyclinic Group. It is what it is – a contract. If I am found to have filed claims wrongly, they can claw-back the monies as per contractual terms. There is no specific legislation for CHAS (unlike Medisave, which is covered under the CPF Act), so enforcement of a contract between contracting parties is quite different from enforcement of a law.

Then she complains about doctors who do not give adequate MC to foreign workers. Well, they should be punished. But do notice that she is completely uncritical of the other elephant in the room – the employers and supervisors. Is this just purely a doctor problem?

As for insurance, yes, she claims insurance patients with full first-dollar coverage may be over-serviced or over-charged and that compulsory co-payment will be introduced to address this. Well, evidence and experience around the world have shown that insurance claims are always higher when there is full first-dollar coverage. This is bad insurance design leading to bad doctor and patient behaviour. These outcomes have been replicated time and again all over the world. What does Ms Salma Khalik expect? Are Singapore and its doctors expected to be so different from the rest of the world?

Over-servicing is not just a doctor thing. Over-servicing can also originate from the patient. The patient, with full and first-dollar insurance coverage, often requests for more expensive services from the doctor. The doctor, being a patient-advocate, will happily oblige. For example, why should a doctor not use the best implant for his full-cover insurance patient and choose something inferior (but adequate)? After all, if my patient has paid for it through his insurance premiums, I will use the best. In fact, if I don’t use the best implant (which is often also the most expensive), the patient may be unhappy with me afterwards. He may tell me “Doc, what didn’t you use the best Brand Z pacemaker for me and instead used the cheaper, inferior Brand Y one when my insurance covers everything?”. Is that dishonesty on the part of the doctor? In fact, in the era of the Modified Montgomery test, I better use the best, lest I be accused of not considering a relevant consideration from the patient’s perspective that should lead me to offer the best pacemaker later on. You never know. Better safe than sorry.

Bad insurance product design probably drives patient and doctor behavior more than human greed, so to speak. Fear of the new medical legal climate also plays a part too.

As for her example about the probability of getting a procedure for unspecified gastritis, it really depends. There are more foreign patients in the private sector. They come here wanting to get a definitive diagnosis and treatment as quickly as possible and then go home, hence the bigger demand for “a procedure” (probably a gastroscope). Also, many patients seek treatment in the public sector first for gastritis, and when the problem recurs, they often wrongly lose faith in our public hospitals, and seek care in the private sector, where again the pressure on the doctor to come to a diagnosis quickly results in more scopes. Yes, money does matter and some doctors do more procedures to earn the dough. But one must realise that in the private sector, there are also other factors that favour doing a scope which are not pecuniary. When you are the first doctor dealing with the problem, the patient is more patient (pun intended). When you are the second, third or fourth doctor dealing with the same problem, the patient has often run out of patience and is already very emotionally distressed. In addition, private hospital bed charges are a lot more than public ones and observing a patient for a few more days in the private hospital may cost as much as doing a scope. And even after observing the patient for a few more days, you may still not get a definitive diagnosis.

Shouldn’t a senior health correspondence with decades of experience in healthcare reporting give much more balanced analyses than this shallow sweep of “cheating” doctors and dentists?

Actually, she seems like a sulking kid who refuses to admit a mistake. “Salmatologists” (This hobbit is one) will recall that she wrote another long opinion piece on 26 March 2018 (Sunday Times) where she made the claim, “Drilling down, the MOH concluded that much of the higher claims was the result of overcharging and overtreatment by doctors in the private sector”. (“Diagnosing the cause of rising costs”).

This was clearly refuted by MOH and guess what, The Straits Times itself! On 30 March, the newspaper clarified that “This is incorrect, the Ministry of Health did not draw such a conclusion”. It was a mistake by her, pure and simple.

And now, once again, she is again asserting essentially the same erroneous claim, only albeit in a more convoluted way, and wisely not attributing this to MOH but to the insurance industry instead, presumably to “one insurer” and the COO of AIA, Ms Melita Teo.

So what’s the message here – that like Ms Salma Khalik, the “one insurer” and AIA’s Ms Melita Teo disagrees with MOH – overcharging and over-servicing by private sector doctors are the main reasons for rising insurance claims?

There is a pattern to all this of course. Her usual and favourite trick is to drive a wedge between MOH and the medical profession; then she entreats the government to come down hard on the medical profession. This can be seen on at least three occasions:

  • FIn 2005, she made the assertion that the then DMS will remove dispensing rights from medical clinics, which the then DMS refuted.
  • Then in March this year, she made the claim that MOH is of the position that higher insurance claims was the result of overcharging and over-treatment by doctors in the private sector, a position that the Straits Times has since said MOH didn’t arrive at.
  • Now, she is asking MOH and other authorities to go tough on cheating and unethical doctors and dentists. And she has also apparently roped in the insurance folks to beef up her claims (pun unintended).

You have to give it to her. As an object of antiquity, she has enormous energy. Apparently, she’s 63 years old (give or take a year or two), and this hobbit can only wonder how long more can she keep going like this. But seriously folks, other than Salmatologists, no one really reads these long opinion pieces anymore in the age of Instagram and Twitter.

In the meantime, will someone give her a broom? This hobbit is thinking of giving her a hat as a year-end gift. The two gifts will go nicely together. Hopefully they will come in handy when she finally retires.

Happy Halloween


Urgent Skin and Eye Blue Letter

Even as the dust on the SingHealth cyberattack has barely settled, another piece of bad news has surfaced on healthcare IT systems offered by Integrated Health Information Systems (IHIS). IHIS is the IT arm of MOHH that oversees IT development and implementation in the public healthcare sector, and increasingly influences the private sector as well. It involved the mis-labelling of drugs affecting 400 GP patients who saw GPs who are using the GP Connect software that IHIS offers. Two days later it was reported that the affected number of affected patients is more likely to be double that of the original number – 836 patients seen in 104 clinics.

An egregious example given was that a patient who was supposed to take 10ml of cough mixture would be asked to take 10 bottles in instead. For codeine addicts, that’s like hitting the casino jackpot.

When such an incident happens, we need to ask a couple of inconvenient questions. First- if the patient indeed was dispensed 10 bottles and worse, took the amount as stipulated, who will be responsible for the unfortunate consequences?

The short answer to this question is “YOU, the GP”. (are you surprised?) As a GP in the private sector using GP Connect, it is quite unlikely you had hired a pharmacist or staff nurse to perform dispensing. If you did, then the pharmacist or staff nurse, both registered with the state and licensed to perform dispensing duties independently, has to bear the brunt of the responsibility. If not, the dispensing staff are dispensing under your supervision and you will have to take professional responsibility even if the IT system had printed out the labels wrongly. This is because you are supposed to have checked and realised the labels did not reflect what you had prescribed earlier on. You may be punished by MOH, Health Science Authority and/or SMC for dispensing the drug in wrong dosages.

What about the IHIS and the IHIS folks? Presumably, the people in there who developed GP Connect are NOT state-registered doctors, pharmacists and nurses. So, the most you can do is perhaps sue them for civil damages and get some money back. The people won’t be suspended or struck-off by some authority regulating the IT profession (IT professionals are not state-licensed).

This is what the financial and business world calls “skin in the game”. You, the doctor, have a lot more skin:- epidermis, dermis and hypodermis, in the game then the IT folks. This inequality or asymmetry in risk exposure leads to the inevitable cultivation of unhealthy behaviour. That’s not to say IT people are evil people, they are not. It’s just that if that is how the system is badly set-up, then suboptimal behaviour and outcomes are sure to follow. This phenomenon is pretty well described in famous economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s new book “Skin In The Game”. (He also wrote The Black Swan which sold 3M copies)

On 6 Sep 18, 2 days after the news first broke, it was revealed that this glitch was due to a “planned system update”. Frankly, this sounds terrible and this hobbit is not sure what is the messaging aim here. If a “planned” system update could mess up life like this, one should ask what if the update was unplanned? Would it have been far worse? Is it being “planned” a mitigating factor or an exacerbating factor? Are we supposed to commiserate with the patient, the GP, or get angrier with IHIS? Would the mess have been less if there wasn’t any update, whether planned or otherwise? I don’t know about you, but this hobbit is really confused.

Next on the radar screen are the anaesthetists in the private sector. Apparently, many of them have been targeted by the taxman. Let this hobbit be clear from the onset: he firmly believes the taxman is to more feared than the hitman. The hitman can’t do anything after you are dead. The taxman will get you, in this life or the after-life: he will hit your estate. They are even more powerful than forensic pathologists.

As we all know, most anaesthetists set up companies. Professional fees are paid to and recognised as revenue in these companies, and anaesthetists then get their income from these companies in the form of salaries, dividends and directors’ fees after expenses have been deducted.

Apparently, the taxman now thinks that because these companies who have no office, hire no staff other than the anaesthetists, they are nothing more than tax shelters providing tax avoidance for the owner-employee anaesthetists. The taxman now wants to claw back the difference in taxes the doctors have paid to the government had the doctor been taxed as an individual only when the doctor had paid taxes as a blend of different tax schemes (personal income tax for salary of up to 22%, 22% for director’s fees, 17% corporate tax rate for dividends).

This problem arose because the maximum tax rate for income tax now (22%) is significantly higher than for corporate tax (17%). Certain amounts of dividends are also given tax breaks and certain cost items can be “expensed off”, such as meals with colleagues or the purchase of your Ipad which you need for your work. Some people have received letters saying their claw-back will be up to 5 years. So now, an anaesthetist may now find himself owing the taxman hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It is therefore no surprise that many private sector anaesthetists are up in arms. I know many of them, and they have sought professional accounting and tax advice in the past to set up these companies to avoid paying more tax. They did so in good faith under professional advice. Why should they be penalised for something in the past, just because the taxman applies new rules of interpretation of (purportedly) Section 33 of the Income Tax Act? Who wants to pay more tax than what one is supposed to legally and in good faith?

In any case, tax avoidance may not also be the main reason why doctors set up companies. A private limited company, as the name suggests, is a way of limiting one’s exposure to damages arising from business activity. If you work for and under a company, your business liability is limited to the assets of the company, even though your professional liability is not. For example, the damages, say, your supplier, can get from you is limited to the company’s paid up capital and assets. Your supplier cannot touch the assets that you own personally which are not part of the company, such as your home or your personal-use car. As this hobbit sees it, this is the main advantage of setting up and working under the umbrella of a private limited company.

This liability limitation objective can be evinced by the fact that some companies set up by older anaesthetists have been in existence for decades. In the 80s and 90s, income tax was actually lower than corporate tax. These senior anaesthetists probably paid more money than they could have had they not sought a company structure to house their activities. Can they now claw-back the excess money from the taxman? In the name of fairness, surely there is is some merit in this argument?

Even if the taxman wants to take a new interpretation and get anaesthetists to pay more taxes, this new interpretation should not be applied retrospectively in claw-backs. It should at best be applied to current and future income. And the fact that because the anaesthetists don’t have an office and hire staff, they are then penalised to pay more taxes doesn’t make much sense. If 30 anaesthetists hired 5 receptionists and a tea lady and housed them in a 500 square-foot office in Yishun at $2 per square feet means paying much less taxes, then they may just do it. But what does that do to Singapore and the government’s drive for more productivity? Nothing. It may just mean more low productivity jobs that the Singapore economy doesn’t need.

Someone needs to see the Big Picture here. Obviously the taxman’s visual field and visual  acuity in the context of the Future Economy needs to be questioned here. If not, the road to lower taxes through lower productivity will surely be taken.



Sacred Cow or Golden Calf?

SingHealth Cyberattack 2018

The cyberattack into Singhealth dominated healthcare news not just in Singapore, but in the world as well. News of the attack was made public on 20 July 2018, exactly 5 months to the day when this Hobbit published “NEHR: A Patient’s Perspective from A Doctor’s Eyes”. In the section on “Security” in the aforesaid article, this Hobbit wrote:

“The last point I would like to deal with is that of security. Security can basically be defined as measures put in place to prevent breaches of confidentiality. How secure is the NEHR? I am confident that the planners and implementers have tried their reasonable best to ensure best practices in IT security have been put in place or are being put in place. After all, the NEHR, being backed by government, has enormous resources to do so.

Even then, no IT system, especially one that is internet-based and cloud-based, with literally unlimited number of entry points (every clinic or hospital computer that is linked to the internet is an entry point into the NEHR) is hack-proof. If it were not so, there would be no need for the government to delink civil servants’ work computers and intranet from the internet last year. It was reported this affected all 143,000 civil servants. That is a tacit admission that no security system is fool-proof or hack-proof. I suppose this shows cyberthreats cannot be wished away, but they can be effectively partitioned away.

This hobbit is sure the NEHR is as secure as can be, but not quite more secure from the civil servants’ work computers before they were delinked from the Internet. In fact, the fact that the NEHR exists must in itself be a very tempting trophy database for hackers from all over the world to try and test and breach.

In the event a breach happens and records and medical information are stolen, what is the liability of the NEHR or the government with regard to this breach, and what are the rights of the affected patients? Can he seek redress, compensation, damages etc.?”

Sometimes, this Hobbit wishes he isn’t so spot-on, although he was referring to the NEHR and not the current IHIS-Singhealth Electronic Medical Records (EMR) that had been hacked into. But if you replace “NEHR” with “IHIS-Singhealth EMR”, everything else pretty much applies. In fact, DPM Teo Chee Hean pretty much said so too when he said in hindsight, that internet surfing separation for public hospital separation should and could have been done earlier.

And it was just as well that this attack occurred before the NEHR was rolled out to the private sector. If that had already happened, then the cyber-attacker would have even more access points to hack via any computer in any of the 2000+ private clinics and laboratories all over Singapore.

This hobbit supposes that all the computer terminals in the three public healthcare clusters are well maintained with up-to-date antiviral software, server firewalls and robust security measures such as high security passwords etc. The public healthcare sector has dedicated IT teams and resources to ensure this. The same cannot be said for the private clinics. Do they have anti-viral software? Let alone up-to-date ones? And what about passwords? I won’t be surprised if many passwords are “qwerty”…

So, it was fortuitous that NEHR hasn’t been made mandatory yet in the private sector, if not the cyber-attackers would have found it even easier to launch a cyberattack, and probably an even more massive and debilitating one.

The authorities also said that the data that had been exfiltrated was “not sensitive”, and were “basic demographic data”. This was an attack on 1.5 million people, which is about 25 to 30% of the populace on this island. It is really an attack on Singapore, plain and simple. Singhealth was probably chosen because many, many influential people seek care in SGH, and the Outram Campus, which are part of SingHealth. If you want to dig out medical information on most of Singapore’s VVIPs and CIPs, the most ‘rewarding’ place to look would be SingHealth. It wouldn’t be NHG or NUHS. Anyone in healthcare long enough knows this.

I am not sure downplaying the impact of the cyberattack is the right strategy here. Sure, someone needs to strike a balance between unnecessarily pressing the panic button and euphemising a clear and present danger. I can decide what is “sensitive”, thank you. My birthday and my NRIC number are sensitive data alright.

In addition, the 160,000 medication records that had been exfiltrated was surely sensitive information. Any healthcare worker, be it a doctor, pharmacist or nurse can quite easily infer from the medication records with reasonable accuracy what disease(s) the patient is being treated for. And if you think about it, this is the most efficient way to know about a patient’s medical status. If you go and look at his investigation results, there will be many ‘uninteresting’ normal results. If you look at the record of procedures done, you may miss the pure medical diagnoses the patient has. But when you look at the medication records, almost everything there is sensitive and ‘useful’. This is a medically-intelligent cyber-attacker.

The externalities of this attack are significant. The attack does not only affect the 1.5m people or the 160,000 medication records. The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) has already instructed all bank to take more steps to verify the identity beyond the basic demographic data that was exfiltrated. Unless you do not have a bank account or use only human teller services, we will all have to answer more questions to verify our identity, beyond name, NRIC, address and birthdate. In other words, practically everyone is affected adversely.

Since we are on the subject of NEHR, let’s discuss security of the NEHR in the wake of the attack. The authorities have categorically stated that the move towards NEHR is inexorable. There is NO turning back. It is true that the move away from paper cannot be avoided. But it is also true the NEHR has many issues that need serious re-thinking and ironing out.

This Hobbit senses that there is an almost religious fervour amongst those in power to developing a monolithic glorious NEHR that will be the pride of Singapore and establish the country amongst the pantheon of IT gods as soon as possible. To be in the pantheon of IT gods is the geek’s ultimate fantasy. But we need to face up to reality beyond geek-ish obsessions. Perhaps it is wise to take a leaf from Steven Spielberg latest directorial effort, the hit movie “Ready Player One”. In this movie set in the future (2045AD), most people in the world are living in slums and finding happiness only in a virtual reality gaming world called OASIS. The founder James Halliday becomes the richest man on the planet, with a fortune of $1trillion. But at the end of his life, he realised that “reality is real”; not OASIS.

Indeed, reality is real. Reality involves looking at the NEHR with detached objectivity. But it is difficult. The people right in the thick of things can get easily enamoured with the whole idea. Even a tech giant like Facebook is not immune to such failings. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in an interview on 18 July 18 that “we were too focused on just the positives and not focused enough on some of the negatives”. When you make a Golden Calf and worship it, you seldom look at its negatives.

If you look at the NEHR publicity so far, it is all about the positives: continuity of care, ease of care, more efficiency, patient safety etc. It’s terrific spin. Nobody talks about the potential negativities. But one must wonder if the people driving this believe in their spin? As the saying goes – never believe in your own spin.

Former editor of The Straits Times, Han Fook Kwang had his finger on the pulse when he wrote, “(NEHR is) A no brainer for the medical fraternity? You would have thought so. But doctors are divided over it”. (Singapore needs to get smarter about digital world, 5 Aug 2018)

He also said’ “It is easy to be seduced by the appeal of placing everything in a common system under one control: It can be more efficient and is easier to manage. Very Singapore Inc, you might say”. The key word here is “seduced”. Mr Han goes on to explain the pros and cons of a centralised system versus a distributed one. He used to be an elite Administrative Officer with experience working in MOH so he obviously knows more than a bit about healthcare.

For sure, many doctors in the private sector, like this Hobbit, don’t buy the spin. Many have quietly voiced their reservations about the security dangers, loss of privacy rights and costs of maintaining the system etc. But the feedback has always been “We are going full-steam ahead”. Until this massive cyber-attack happened and Smart Nation projects was paused for a total of 14 days (20 July to 3 Aug). A cyberattack that affected 1.5 million people did not quite put a dent in the Charge of the NEHR Brigade beyond 14 days.

This hobbit hopes someone in authority is finally looking at the negatives seriously even as we continue to brandish the positives. For one, if internet surfing separation is going to be permanent, does it mean that there will be at least one computer terminal in each clinic dedicated to just NEHR and which is not connected to the Internet? Who pays for that and its upkeep as well? Even if that happens, what is there to prevent hackers from physically breaking into a GP clinic located in the HDB heartlands at night and launching a cyber-attack from there? Does it mean we have to physically secure each clinic to the same level as SGH?

Regulation of the Public Sector

On 4 Aug, NUS Law Dean Simon Chesterman wrote eruditely in The Straits Times that we should not waste the opportunities afforded by this Singhealth cyber-attack crisis and take a good look at revisiting the issue of privacy on top of addressing the obvious issue of security. He was obviously not enthusiastic of the fact that the entire Singapore public sector was exempted from the “relevant legislation” (i.e. the Personal Data Protection Act or PDPA in short) that governs data protection. (Singhealth breach may give privacy new life, 4 Aug 2018).

Many official sources have said that the NEHR is subject to even higher standards than what the PDPA requires so no one should be worried. But that is NOT the point. The point here is when the public sector fails the public and fails the standards that it is supposed to meet, what happens? The PDPA provides for clear penalties to be meted out and the rights of the private individual is clearly spelled out. What is the equivalent of that in the public sector? Can the patients now sue IHIS or Singhealth? Who regulates IHIS and Singhealth under which piece of legislation when a cyberattack is successful and patients’ privacy and confidentiality suffer?

A private hospital administrator said to this hobbit that if this cyberattack had happened in the private sector, the PDPA would have been enforced and in all likelihood, the party involved, say a private hospital, would have been punished under the clear provisions of the PDPA with hefty fines etc. But since the PDPA doesn’t apply to the public sector, it’s anyone’s guess.

The SMA-AMS-CFPS Survey on Patient Perspectives of NEHR

This point is in fact quite well echoed in the results of a survey which was commissioned recently by the Singapore Medical Association, College of Family Physicians and Academy of Medicine, Singapore which has been released to the members of SMA and AMS. Out of the 2100 people surveyed, no less than 81.7% were concerned that the NEHR was not subject to the requirements of the PDPA. A whopping 82.9% (1741 of 2100) were concerned that their medical information would be used for matters of public interest by the Ministry without their consent.

Other significant findings include:
• 581 of 2100 (27.7%) definitely wanted to have their records maintained in the NEHR
• 1175 of 2100 (56.0%) would like their records maintained in the NEHR but did not want any healthcare provider to access it without their explicit consent except in emergencies. (i.e. privacy concerns)

On the issue of security:
• 77.5% (1627 of 2100) of the respondents were confident that their data in the NEHR was secure,
• 70.8% (1487 of 2100) were confident that their data would not be misused by others.

This survey was done before the cyber-attack. Will 77.5% of people still be confident of the security of the NEHR now?

But there is good news for the authorities. Singaporeans understand the importance of having a NEHR. 92.2% of those surveyed were supportive to varying degrees of having an NEHR. But of course, the devil is in the details. And as this Hobbit has said some five months ago, the concerns and dangers are lurking somewhere in the alleys of privacy and security which need to be faced squarely and addressed adequately.

As you can see, many people who had been surveyed were already concerned with some of the potential negatives of the NEHR, even though they saw the need for electronic medical records. The findings are not surprising.

Time For A Rethink, Repositioning and Redirecting ?

This hobbit feels that the NEHR urgently needs a re-positioning. In the wake of the cyber-attack, it is not just enough to say the NEHR is good for continuity of care, efficiency, cost-effectiveness, patient safety etc. Yes, the NEHR works for the patient’s interest in these areas. But the NEHR must also work for the patient’s rights and interests in other equally important areas such as privacy, confidentiality and security. And it is not just spin. The public that is now “sensitised” to such issues will want to know what are the concrete policies and measures taken to do so.

The public will also want to know what are their rights to redress, compensation and damages if their privacy and confidentiality rights have been compromised. This is still unclear in the context of the Singhealth cyber-attack and even more nebulous with regard to the NEHR.

What has happened in the last few weeks with the cyberattack calls for deep reflection,  serious repositioning. It may even need some redirecting – a change in course if necessary. But this hobbit doesn’t think there will be much of these. Instead, the focus is still on achieving rapid deification through the NEHR.

Come to think of it, this hobbit feels the NEHR is turning out to be something between a sacred cow and a golden calf…..

Perhaps it is time to revisit Lord Alfred Tennyson’s famous poem, “Charge of the Light Brigade”, in particular, the 2nd stanza:

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Less Trodden Paths

We all know that doctors are talented folks. Even though Hippocrates said that learning the art (of medicine) is long but life is short (Ars Longa, Vita Brevis), many doctors still find time to excel in a whole lot of things other than medicine.

For a start, these obvious overachievers are in politics. Across the Causeway, both the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are now doctors: Dr Mahathir and Dr Wan Azizah. If you think Dr Mahathir is the biggest or best example of a doctor-politician, overturning 61 years of UMNO rule, many will argue that Dr Sun Yat-Sen (Graduate of Hong Kong University) may have achieved something even greater. In 1912, he overturned more than 2000 years of dynasty rule in China with the founding of the Republic of China. He is recognised as the Father of modern China. But even if maybe not the greatest, Dr M certainly gets the prize of being the oldest medically-trained national leader at 92.

Then there is the Marxist guerilla leader of Cuba – Che Guevara. He’s really Argentinian and a doctor. He is most revered in Cuba and has been called “Castro’s brains”. He lived from 1928 to 1967 before he was gunned down in Bolivia.

President Georges Clemenceau who led France for two spells: 1906 to 09, 1917 to 1920 was also a doctor.

Finally, there is the infamous President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria. Thousands have died in the ongoing civil war with one quarter of the population fleeing as refugees abroad and another quarter being internally displaced refugees. Guess what? Until he was recalled by his father (the original President Assad) to Syria to take over from his elder brother who died in an accident, he was a low-key guy practicing ophthalmology in London.

Many doctors also excelled as a man of letters. Many famous writers were doctors. The creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was a doctor. He applied a fair bit of medical knowledge to the mysteries he wrote. The late Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic World and the original Westworld, was a doctor.

Famous short-story writers, Russian Anton Chekhov and Chinese Lu Xun, were also medically trained. Lu Xun dropped out of medical school in Japan. But Anton Chekhov practiced medicine most of his life. In fact he said “medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress”.

Somerset Maugham, the famous short-story writer author and playwright studied medicine in St Thomas Hospital (Now King’s College London). He recalled that medical education was beneficial to him as an author, “”I saw how men died. I saw how they bore pain. I saw what hope looked like, fear and relief”

For the realm of poetry, there is the Romantic Poet John Keats, who lived only for 26 years (1795 to 1821) and studied medicine in Guy’s Hospital (Now also part of King’s College) and wrote famous poems such as “Ode to a Nightingale”, “Sleep and Poetry” and “On First Looking into Chapman’s corner”.

Representing the female gender is Han Suyin. She wrote the famous novel “A Many Splendoured Thing” which was made into a film starring Jennifer Jones and William Holden. It was even made into a soap opera series that lasted 6 years in the United States. She was half Chinese, half Flemish and studied medicine in Brussels and she practiced medicine for quite a few years. In fact, she was a physician in Nanyang University (the original “Nantah”, precursor to NTU) in Singapore when it was founded in the fifties. She was actually invited by the University to teach literature then, but she refused, saying she wanted “to make a new Asian literature, not teach Dickens”.

In the area of mass media entertainment, there are also examples of doctors who made it big. Korean -American actor Ken Jeong  who starred in the over-the-top comedy trilogy  of “Hangover” movies is actually a licensed physician in California.

The famous Taiwanese singer Lo Ta-Yu (罗大佑) is also medically trained. He is generally regarded as one of the godfathers of Taiwanese rock.

New Age spiritual guru Deepak Chopra is also a doctor. And also a very well-trained one. He graduated from a top Indian medical school – All India Institute of Medical Sciences before completing his residency training in the United States in internal medicine and endocrinology. And then he gave that all up to be a guru. He is currently actually a voluntary full professor in the University of California, San Diego, in the Department Family Medicine and Public Health.

In the area of sports, there is the legendary Sir Roger Bannister. In 1954, he became the first man to run the mile under 4 minutes. He later became a much-respected neurologist in Pembroke College, Oxford. Interestingly, he wanted to be remembered more for his work in medicine than in sports. But alas, it is the latter that he is now famous for.

Then there is the captain of the Brazil football team in the 1982 World Cup, Socrates. He is recognised as one of the most accomplished footballers Brazil ever had. He actually earned his medical degree while playing world-class football! This is in contrast to many sportsmen and women who studied medicine after they had given up their sporting careers. A notable example of this is USA swimmer Jenny Thompson, winner of eight Olympic gold medals. She went on to pursue a career in medicine after retiring from swimming.

Lastly, there is an interesting area that many doctors, especially in Australia, like to venture into – the field of winemaking. Many Australian wine estates are named after their founders. These wine estates were generally founded in the 19th or early 20th century. Many wine drinkers will recognise these names instantly:

Penfolds, Hardy, Lindeman, Angove, Cullen, Houghton

They were all doctors. Dr Penfolds, Dr Lindeman, Dr Hardy etc….I guess doctors back then already knew that a glass or two of wine was good for you.

These names are some of the largest and most famous wineries Down Under. For example, Penfolds is the largest wine brand in Australia. Hardy and Lindeman are in the top five- or top-ten lists as well. They are now no longer run by doctors.

A living example of a famous winery that is run and owned by a practicing doctor is Catena of Argentina. Catena is often credited for putting Argentinian wine on the world map. The 4th generation owner and managing director of the winery, Laura Catena Zapata is actually a graduate of Stanford Medical School and still practices medicine.

Perhaps there is more to life than being a doctor, after all.



Back to 1993: Health Care Philosophy

The business of running a health insurance is based on actuarial science. Health insurance is not rocket science. However, embedded in the actuarial projections of health insurance is a lot of data that can be explained by the discipline of behaviorial science.

The recent policy announcement by the Ministry of Health to mandate that new policies underwritten as Integrated Shield Plans (IPs) offerings will no longer have “first-dollar coverage” has engendered much discussion and discomfiture among certain stakeholders, noticeably among policy holders and healthcare providers. The common term for first-dollar coverage is “riders”. Apparently, 1.1M people in Singapore have bought these riders whereby they do not need to make any out-of-pocket payments either as deductibles or co-payments when they make insurance claims. To complicate things, many of these IPs are also “as-charged” policies whereby the insurance companies pay out whatever the healthcare providers have charged. And to add salt into the wound, the SMA Guidelines of Fees had to be withdrawn in 2007 because it was deemed to be anti-competitive.

Expectedly, it was found that claims for these plans rose far faster both in size and frequency than those that did not have riders, suggesting that there is overcharging and over-servicing for these plans, leading to over- and unnecessary consumption of healthcare. Doctors in Singapore have been blamed by some quarters for this phenomenon.

Many countries, such as USA, Australia, Canada etc have had much more experience in health insurance than Singapore. And the experience is consistent and unequivocal – first dollar coverage and as-charged plans always lead to much higher and more frequent claims than those that do not have these characteristics. Human behavior and self-interests dictate that the parties involved (patients, doctors and hospital administrators) will work to create these unfavourable and unsustainable outcomes.

Why were insurance companies allowed to offer IP health insurance products that offer first-dollar coverage and reimbursement at as-charged rates when experience world-wide has shown that such products will lead to runaway healthcare inflation? This is perhaps not the forum to examine this in detail but those who are in positions of power should perhaps quietly and introspectively ponder this.

Singapore, because of the safety nets of a well-funded and equipped public healthcare system and Medisave and Medishield, actually came rather late into the game of private medical insurance. If so, Singapore should and could have easily learnt from others and avoid making the same mistakes. But alas, we did not. For whatever reasons, whether by purposeful policy design or mis-design, or inadvertent regulatory neglect, first dollar coverage riders and as-charged plans made their way into our healthcare financing environment in a big way, leading to the problems we now see.

And if indeed Singapore doctors did contribute to bigger and more frequent claims of IPs that are as-charged and with riders, it was hardly surprising. Singapore doctors are humans after all. Are they expected to behave very differently from their counterparts in other countries in the developed world?

A senior health correspondent argued recently that if all doctors had worked ethically and charged reasonably, the problem would not have arisen in the first place. There are black sheep in every profession, not just the medical profession. Stating the obvious (that there are black sheep) while alluding to an ideal impossibility (that ALL doctors work ethically and charge ethically) is neither helpful nor responsible. It merely polarises the discourse unnecessarily and expediently villainises a certain segment.

We can think of other similarly unhelpful statements like “If all e-scooter riders rode responsibly, there would be no need to register e-scooters” or “If all vehicle drivers drove according to traffic rules all the time, there would be no accidents, no need for the traffic police and no need even to purchase motor insurance”.

These are obvious truths, but unhelpful statements if we are to arrive at practical solutions that is sustainable for all stakeholders. In this vein, former Health Senior Minister of State  Chee Hong Tat recently provided a useful framework by his use of the terms over-consumption, over-charging and over-servicing.

Over-charging is a price issue while over-servicing pertains to the volume and scope of services rendered. Over-charging and over-servicing independently or together can lead to over-consumption.

MOH has obviously thought through some of these issues and have started initiatives that are aimed at tackling the problems.

The first and most important of these is the formation of the MOH Fee Benchmarking Advisory Committee. Fee guidelines or benchmarks is a good tool to guard against overcharging and underservicing. If the benchmarks are well constructed, this hobbit  believes the vast majority of doctors will charge within the benchmarks. This is because for the vast majority, to justify why one has not charged within the benchmarks is just too much work and carries too much ethical risk.

On the other hand, benchmarks can also be a guard against underservicing. Some third party administrators have fees scales that are so unrealistically low that providers refuse to offer services that are required. Fee scales that fall below that of the official benchmarks will become questionable in that are these companies truly interested in provide adequate care at reasonable prices or are they just interested in slashing costs and making a profit?

As long as doctors charge within the benchmarks, insurance companies that have panels of preferred doctors may and should become unnecessary.

The annual minimum co-payment cap of $3000 that has been mooted that only applies to panel doctors should also be unnecessary as such. The $3000 cap (with no lifting of cap) should apply to all providers as long as these providers undertake to charge within the benchmarks.

Insurance companies may then also offer fee scales that correlate to the lower end of the benchmarks, but these must lead to lower premiums and savings for patients, so that patients know they are getting bargain insurance products versus premium products that enable them to access any healthcare provider as long as the provider charges within the benchmarks.

Over-servicing is a more difficult issue to tackle because subtle over-servicing is often hard to differentiate from professional judgment that errs on the side of caution. Gross over-servicing is easier to detect and can be discovered often through audits and utilisation reviews.

However, it is important to differentiate insurance fraud from over-servicing and not conflate the two. The case of a hernia repair bill that cost >$30,000 which included a tummy tuck, breast augmentation etc., should be investigated for fraud, especially if the patient did not pay and the doctor did not charge for these additional procedures and only billed for the hernia repair.

Optimising insurance product design remains key to keeping over-consumption in check. For example, some products favour inpatient reimbursements over outpatient even though the cost of offering the service is more expensive in the inpatient setting. Such reimbursement asymmetries should be eliminated. This is no different from how public hospitals operated more than twenty years ago – CT scans could only be subsidised in the inpatient setting. As a result, many patients were admitted for CT scans by doctors so that the out-of-pocket expenses of patients could be reduced, even though they only needed outpatient services. Public hospitals have since improved and largely eliminated such funding anomalies. Insurance companies can learn from them in their reimbursement policies and practices.

While some policy missteps and regulatory neglect may have led us to where we are now, necessitating measures to fix health insurance that may not go well with some parties, it may be timely to also revisit some old-fashioned thinking on health care and the role of government. The 1993 Affordable Health Care White Paper issued by the Government then  clearly stated “The health care system is an example of market failure” (Page 3, Executive Summary). Unfortunately, some parties may have forgotten or chosen to ignore this ageless adage.

In addition, The Government’s Health Care Philosophy was also spelled out in the Executive Summary of the said White Paper. The Philosophy consisted of 5 points, of which we reproduce here:

  • To nurture a healthy nation by promoting good health;
  • To promote personal responsibility for one’s health and avoid over reliance on state welfare or medical insurance;
  • To provide good and affordable basic medical services to all Singaporeans:
  • To rely on competition and market forces to improve service and raise efficiency; and
  • To directly intervene directly in the health care sector when necessary, where the market fails to keep costs down

(Last two points in italics for emphasis)

For a while, we had relied on the almost completely free market to manage costs in the private sector. This has obviously not worked and the government’s current moves to have fee benchmarks and to mandate the removal of first-dollar coverage riders from IPs could be perhaps interpreted as adhering to its original philosophy of 1993 – that of “to directly intervene in the health care sector when necessary, where the market fails to keep costs down”.

After 25 years, the 1993 White Paper is an oldie, and certainly in many ways, still a goodie.






Vintage Salma Khalik

Another year. Another year of Salma Khalik. And her style of journalism.

On 26 March 2018, she wrote in The Sunday Times, “Drilling down, the MOH concluded that much of the higher claims was the result of overcharging and overtreatment by doctors in the private sector”. (“Diagnosing the cause of rising costs”).

On 29 March 2018, in another lengthy opinion piece in The Straits Times “Prescriptions to rein in healthcare costs”, she claimed that the “The Competition Act” had outlawed the “price guide set by the Singapore Medical Council”

These two claims of Salma Khalik have resulted in The Straits Times clarifying that they are incorrect (30 March 2018, Page 2). With regard to the claim of 26 March 2018, it stated that “This is incorrect, the Ministry of Health did not draw such a conclusion” (that much of the higher claims was the result of overcharging and overtreatment by doctors in the private sector).

Interestingly, the online version does not have this erroneous sentence anymore. Presumably, it has been removed. Instead, there is this label:

 Correction note: This story has been edited for clarity.

In this hobbit’s humble opinion, the correction note is euphemistic.

Salma Khalik was not being unclear originally and hence there is no need to edit for clarity. She was very clear in what she meant, but, she was just wrong. Factually wrong.

The correction note should really read:

This story has been edited for factual inaccuracy.

C’mon. Call a spade a spade.

And had she succeeded in making that claim that has now been “clarified”, a wedge would have been created between MOH and the medical profession, especially the private sectors doctors. Because the medical profession would have been pretty upset and wondered how on earth did MOH come to such a conclusion when in reality, many factors contributed to the rise in healthcare costs.

The second mistake is obvious to everyone who is even remotely interested in this subject. The price guide (i.e. Guidelines of Fees) was set by the SMA, not SMC.

This hobbit is baffled. If you go to the The Straits Times website, there is this is the description of Salma Khalik (http://www.straitstimes.com/authors/salma-khalik):

“With more than three decades in journalism, Salma Khalik has been in the thick of things, from covering the stock market to general elections. In the 15 years on the health beat, Salma has gone into Sars wards as that deadly bug put fear into Singaporeans, and uncovered “unhealthy” practices such as patients being given overdoses of chemotherapy drugs. With her grasp of the healthcare system, Salma has also helped to explain the impact of policy changes, supporting some and pointing out failings in others. Her over-riding goal is to push for a better healthcare system for all”.

If the memory of this hobbit serves him correctly, Salma Khalik has been writing about healthcare matters since the last century/millennium, not just 15 years. It’s a great write-up for an experienced journalist. If so, how can she mistake the SMA for the SMC?

This hobbit has no idea. Maybe like the old coot that this hobbit is, she is also getting on in age and the effects of ageing are showing. After all, Salma Khalik has been around for ages. Nowadays, many reporters and journalists do not stay for more than 10 years in one job before they move on, or even five years; either they get promoted to management, or leave for other opportunities in the media or press industry, or leave the sector altogether. In journalist-lifespan terms, she can proudly claim to be an example of an object of antiquity, like the Pyramids of Egypt or the Great Wall of China.

She is a walking piece of history herself. Let this hobbit illustrate as this hobbit remembers only too well. Because there is a style to Salma Khalik’s journalism, best  explained by the fact that she has an “over-riding goal” to push for a better healthcare system.

I do not know much about journalism, but if I were a journalist, my “over-riding goal”  would be to be a honest, competent journalist committed to reporting the truth and avoiding factual inaccuracies. But that’s just me.

Let’s take the example of dispensing rights of doctors. In January of 2005, she wrote two opinion pieces in The Straits Times to push for it. In the process, she completely misrepresented what the then DMS (Prof K Satku) meant. The reporting was so pernicious in nature that it warranted the DMS to clarify with the whole medical profession by circulating the minutes of the meeting between DMS and Salma Khalik (which took place on 1 Dec 2004). The minutes reported “On the separation of drug dispensing form the practitioner as in developing countries, DMS said that it would not happen anytime soon”.

From this statement, Salma Khalik made the quantum leap in logic to conclude that separation of prescription and dispensing will certainly come. DMS said in the cover-note to the circulated minutes that “I will strive to mend any damage done to our trust so that we can work together to serve our patients better”.

We can safely conclude from this sentence that trust between MOH and the medical profession was likely to have been damaged by Salma Khalik’s writing in 2005, since DMS is the most senior and preeminent medical officer of MOH, if not the whole of government and hence the office of DMS is well-placed to represent MOH, especially in the area of professional matters.

In the history of Singapore, no MOH official or MOH political office holder has ever saw the need to circulate the minutes of a meeting between MOH and a reporter to the whole medical profession. Salma Khalik holds this singular honour.

To bolster her case that separation of dispensing and prescription was the right thing to do, she then gave the example of Zimbabwe and recommended we should learn from them in this matter. Yes, Zimbabwe. I am not making this up. Maybe that is why Robert Mugabe came not infrequently after that to Singapore, rumoured to be for medical treatment; maybe it is because Singapore was asked by Salma Khalik to learn from Zimbabwe.

That was in 2005, it is now in 2018. Nothing much has changed. The relationship of trust enjoyed between MOH and the medical profession is put under strain due to the inadvertent efforts of Salma Khalik. In 2005, it was about dispensing rights. In 2018, it is about private doctors overcharging and overtreatment leading to higher insurance claims.

In any case, after 13 years, we still do not have separation of dispensing and prescription rights, despite what Salma Khalik claimed in the January of 2005. Maybe she should just humbly apologise for what she wrote in 2005. After 13 years, we can certainly conclude Salma Khalik was wrong in 2005.

An interesting note to the correction by The Straits Times on 30 March 2018 – did the ST themselves realise Salma Khalik made the two factual errors or it had been notified by someone else, such as MOH? If The Straits Times was informed by an external party of these inaccuracies, shouldn’t the correction come in the form of a published letter in the ST Forum rather than some itsy-bitsy column on Page 2?

One more luminary example of Salma Khalik’s style of journalism: She now laments that it was wrong for the Competition Act to outlaw the Guidelines of Fees (GOF) in the aforesaid opinion piece of 29 March 2018. She then asked who is to be blamed for the current situation? Her answer to her own question included a list of blameworthy folks:

  • The Government
  • Insurers
  • Doctors
  • Patients
  • The Competition Act (for outlawing the GOF)

Let us go back to April 2007. The SMA reluctantly withdrew the GOF in early April of 2007, after its AGM. On 12 April 2007, she wrote an opinion piece titled “Scrapping an obsolete practice” and therein, she opined, “Without a fee guideline, doctors can be more open and competitive. They may post their rates prominently, or even advertise, since that is now allowed”. She also gave “kudos to the Competition Commission” (for outlawing the SMA GOF). She further remarked, “As the world changes, so too must the medical profession. The days when no one questions their diagnoses or their charges are gone”.

Obviously, her 2018 position differs remarkably from what she advocated in 2007.

In retrospect, obviously, three things happened in 2007:

  • She explained wrongly the impact of the policy change of outlawing the GOF
  • She wrongly pointed out “the failings” in the policy of keeping or having the GOF, and
  • She wrongly “supported” the policy of outlawing GOF (versus her 2018 position)

Going by the above three points, in the interests of intellectual honesty, shouldn’t she blame herself too, since she supported and advocated for the outlawing of the GOF in 2007?

But she hasn’t blamed herself. We can only surmise she is either blameless or not  blameworthy.

Let us now revisit her write-up on the ST website

“With her grasp of the healthcare system, Salma has also helped to explain the impact of policy changes, supporting some and pointing out failings in others. Her over-riding goal is to push for a better healthcare system for all”.

Her goal as a senior healthcare correspondent of The Straits Times may be acceptable, but going from the above three examples, obviously her grasp of the healthcare system has been inadequate and inaccurate on more than one occasion.

There are many examples to Salma Khalik’s style of journalism, but let us take a break for now.

*Note: For more commentary on the 2005 saga involving Salma Khalik and DMS, readers can check out this link: