The “Perfect” Communicable Disease Outbreak

Make no mistake, the 2019-nCOV virus is not a remake of SARS. It is a blockbuster sequel. Like Empire Strikes Back. And like all well-made sequels, there should be many surprising twists and turns to the plot. I call this a sequel because both SARS and 2019-nCOV belong to the coronavirus family of viruses.

For other old coots like me, we have fought and survived SARS. I wouldn’t call it a victory, but we survived. That’s enough for me because I know people who literally and physically did not survive SARS. The 2019-nCOV is the big test for the current young generation of healthcare workers.

Like most major and surprising developments, there is good news and then there is bad news.

First the good news. From a case-fatality (CF) rate perspective, the 2019-nCOV is less lethal than SARS. The CF rate for SARS was about 10% (10% of those infected died) while the CF rate for 2019-nCOV is hovering around 3%. The other good news is that the international healthcare community has developed very quickly diagnostic tests that can give you a result in about 24 hours, versus SARS when diagnostic tests took about 2 to 3 days to give a result and these tests were only developed late into the outbreak. But even so, we should remain guarded on this point because we are not sure when the tests can pick up the disease because we do not know for sure when the disease turns detectable. The third piece of good news is that this new disease is spread by droplets (and not airborne) like SARS and a good mask and universal precautions should be enough to break the transmission.

So much for the good news. Now for the bad news, of which there are many.

The 2019-nCOV outbreak (I wish someone in WHO or China will give this bug a more catchy name, like R2D2 or BB8 for example) is designed to perfection in several ways. First, it is perfect in timing. It blew up about a week before Chinese New Year in China, the busiest week of the year when hundreds of millions of Chinese are travelling back to their villages or for holidays, both within China or beyond China’s borders. The size of the travelling population in the week preceding Chinese New Year has been likened to the entire populations of France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain going on the road at the same time. Or the whole of USA moving. In other words, timing-wise, it is timed to perfection for maximum dissemination/propagation of the virus. And it is not done yet. These people now in their hometowns have to return back to their workplace – so a few hundred million people have to go on the road again soon in the next one or two weeks.

In comparison, SARS occurred post-Chinese New Year in 2003, in mid-spring, when Chinese New Year travelling had already been done and dusted.

Outbreak-wise, the 2019-nCOV is location-perfect. It has chosen Wuhan, the city right in the middle of the world’s most populous country with the most comprehensive network of high-speed trains, otherwise known as the High-Speed Rail (HSR). Wuhan is a bit like the Toa Payoh of Singapore in terms of location- smack in the middle. From Toa Payoh, you can easily travel to Jurong, Yishun, the CBD or Changi by a network of expressways. Similarly, from Wuhan, you can travel to the populous Sichuan province and Chongqing in the west, Beijing in the north, Shanghai in the east or Guangzhou and the Greater Bay area in the south within 4 to 6 hours by HSR.

Wuhan and its surrounding areas are so central that since ancient times, it has been a battlefield for different armies contesting for supremacy of China. This is especially evident in the Three Kingdoms period (at the end of the Han Dynasty in the third century) where the Three Kingdoms of Wei, Wu, and Shu fought around Wuhan and the nearby cities, such as Jingzhou. Wuhan is at the junction or confluent point of these three kingdoms, which underlies the centricity of it’s location. The biggest battle of the Three Kingdom period took place in Chibi or Red Cliff on a tributary of the Yangtze. It’s so famous that director John Woo made a two-part movie about it (Battle of Red Cliff) with a star-studded cast in 2008. Chibi is a stone’s throw from Wuhan and one of the first cities to be locked down together with Wuhan.

You cannot choose a better location than Wuhan in Hubei province to plant a disease outbreak in China. As they say, location, location, location. And Dr Evil couldn’t have chosen a better location even if he wanted to.

Next is the speed of transmission. In the past, a migrant worker may take up to four or five days to return to his kampong from centrally-placed Wuhan – You take a few slow trains, take a bus, hitch a ride and walk etc. Now with the HSR, you are home probably on the same day, within 24 hours, for 90% of China’s migrant working population. China’s HSR and road network is as good as any developed country in the world. That means the spread of 2019-nCOV is several times faster than the 2003 SARS, thanks to great travel infrastructure in 2019. In other words, in terms of coverage, 2019-nCOV beats SARS hands down.

Outside of China, the spread is also of many orders of magnitude faster and bigger than SARS, thanks to the huge number of Chinese travellers going overseas for holidays over the festive period. In 2003, SARS only came to Singapore because the virus travelled to Hong Kong and several Singaporeans caught the infection when they travelled to Hong Kong and stayed at the Metropole Hotel and brought the virus back to Singapore. That took time and quite a few people. Now in 2019, you can see that most countries have the infection introduced to them by people travelling from Wuhan directly to these countries. The number of travellers coming from Wuhan number in the tens of thousands in any given month to major cities in Asia. The number of Chinese travelling abroad in 2003 was a fraction of what we have in 2019. In 2003, we had to “import” SARS from HK, which in turn was imported from Guangdong, China. Now Wuhan has directly “exported” 2019-nCOV to Singapore and several other countries.

SARS lasted quite a few months in 2003. In the end there were about 8000 cases and 800 deaths. Contrast this to 2019-nCOV. Official investigations into this new disease started after the Chinese National Health Commission was alerted to the outbreak on 30 Dec 2019. It took only 4 weeks since then for this new disease to infect about 4000 people, half the total number of SARS patients. It is no surprise that the official (let alone the unofficial) statistics reflect the speed of the spread. This hobbit predicts that many more people will be infected with 2019-nCOV than SARS. Hopefully with a lower CF rate, and better facilities, therapeutic options now than in 2003, not too many people will perish. But I am not betting the farm on this hope…..

These are the hard truths. But there is more. The prospects may be grimmer than the above because of our imperfect understanding of the disease on two fronts:

• We do not know if the infected person is infectious during the incubation period or not
• Simple signs like fever may not be a reliable sign for the disease

These two points dramatically changes the game for us battling this new disease. SARS patients were not infectious during the incubation period and when they were infectious, they had fever. That gave us time and ease of detection. Outbreak fighters were given up to one incubation period (a minimum of ~7 days) to locate close contacts of SARS patients so that they could be quarantined and in doing so, break the chain of transmission. Now, if claims that a patient is infectious even during the incubation period is true, that one-week window of safety may no longer be there. There may be no time to find and round up close contacts. The Chinese believe this is so while local (Singapore) experts think this point is still debatable. We don’t have conclusive evidence on this one way or the other.

The next point is that fever may not be a reliable sign, although according to a study published in The Lancet on 24 Jan 2020 for a cohort of 41 patients, 40 out of 41 or 98% of patients developed a fever, though it was not stated if they developed the fever early or late into the course of the disease. Other reports cite that up to 30% of patients do not develop fever. The jury is still out for fever as a reliable sign. From a study design point of view, the power of a study based on a cohort size of 41 is debatable. We need bigger studies.

In Singapore, there is no evidence of community spread. Strictly speaking, there is no cause for panic. Or even N95 masks. So surgical masks should suffice for front line staff unless you are dealing with a suspect case, pending serological confirmation, in which case you need to get a N95. But if you are dealing with a suspect case, you are probably working in a restructured hospital, armed to the teeth with PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment) and as a SARS veteran yourself or a younger doctor supervised by a SARS veteran, you should be OK.

The problematic issues for now remain on two fronts

• Where do we get surgical masks (and other PPEs) in the private sector?
• How to risk stratify and what responses should we make to different risk levels

For folks in the private sector, surgical masks are getting increasingly if not impossible to get. Strangely, you can still get your box of N95s from SMA. But no one can promise you your supply of surgical masks beyond the odd box of 50 masks here or there. That is hardly reassuring to the GPs in the frontlines. This hobbit would like to think or hope that someone is sitting on a war-chest of surgical masks (and gowns) like Joseph hoarding grain in biblical times, now ready to unlock the supply that will be enough to feed Egypt in a famine lasting seven years. Or at least enough masks for seven weeks lah……

As for risk stratification, policy makers have made it clear that travel to China is a major risk factor.

Returning (from China) students and healthcare/eldercare workers are required to be quarantined. The selection of these groups reflects the thinking that these are people with the potential for spreading the disease to many people quickly, should they be infected.

A much more worrisome point is that it has now been reported that 2000 persons who are now in Singapore have been to Hubei recently. How many of these are already carrying the infection? What are the chances that community or local transmission will arise from these 2000 persons?

The next question we must ask is that how do we enforce a proper quarantine for these groups? Should they be monitored closely like in the past during SARS? Does home quarantine suffice, since fever may not be a reliable sign and they may be infectious during incubation and hence may spread the disease to family members? Should we think about hotel quarantine instead? (Since there are going to be quite a few empty hotel rooms soon, I guess)

There are many questions. But as with any novel disease outbreak, the answers are few. We need to buckle down, keep our morale up, and observe strict discipline in our infection control practices. These are obvious.

What is less obvious, and quite worrisome, is that we must avoid the mistake that many generals make – generals often fail or get defeated when they fight the last war.

These is a new enemy. A new war. We have to think new too.

Monkey See, Monkey Do?

It’s December and the season to wind down. But sometimes, they just won’t let you. You sense a grave disturbance in the Force. The Dark Side is lurking just down the corridors of power, and you hear it’s mocking snigger giving way slowly to cackling, evil laughter. Ready ever to exsanguinate and impose great pain on you.

We are of course talking about the Blood Suckers Group (BSG) (oops, I mean Blood Services Group) of the Highly Soporific Authority (HSA) (oops, I mean Health Science Authority) and its latest circular to all Hospital Transfusion Committee Chairs and Hospital Laboratory Managers titled “The Need for 2 Separately Drawn Samples for Pre-transfusion Testing w.e.f. 1 Jan 2020″.

The BSG has just decreed that for all new patients (without prior records of blood grouping) for what we mortals know as Group and Cross Match or (GXM) will now need to submit TWO separately drawn blood samples taken on SEPARATE occasions which are preferably drawn by TWO persons.

This is to “detect and prevent ‘Wrong Blood in Tube’ (WBIT) errors”.

This Hobbit is given to understand that this requirement does not apply to restructured hospitals because they have already implemented “an electronic patient identification system” that is used “verification of blood samples meant for pre-transfusion testing”. Again, in plain mortal-speak, it means restructured hospitals have IT systems that can print patient stickers with patient-specific bar-codes.

For a start, these geniuses can improve their communication skills by taking lessons from Chewbacca.

But apparently, no private hospital in the Middle-earth have these fantastic sticker-printers that can print bar codes. So now, whenever a patient in private hospital needs blood, he has to be poked twice by two different people.

When one changes policy or implements a policy, there are trade-offs in costs and benefits which must be looked into and in this day and age, and explained to the affected parties (because in this day and age, affected parties are not morons).

  • For example, how many WBIT incidents and near misses have there been in the last five years? What is the average number of incidents per year?
  • How many GXM requests are there in a year from private hospitals? What is the additional cost of doubling this number of blood group testing?

Internally, one has to also conduct a cost-benefit analysis of this proposed new policy of poking everyone twice.

  • Give an imputed value to the value of a life saved (health economists can do that) by taking blood twice from each person.
  • Give an imputed value to the pain suffered for the additional blood sample taken
  • Give an imputed value to the possible complications (e.g. hematoma, infection etc) of venipuncture (low risk is NOT no risk).
  • Work out the manpower and material cost (reagents, supplies, biohazard waste disposal etc) of this additional testing requirement

Then deduct the costs from the proposed benefit and ask -does this still make any sense or cents?

While patient safety is a laudable aim in healthcare policy-making, there is cost to additional patient safety once we have achieved an acceptably high level of patient safety. It is naïve to think that patient safety has to be pursued at all costs (no matter how catchy that sounds) because there is a limit to resources. If we have unlimited resources, we can pursue something at all costs. But alas, the inconvenient truth is we don’t have unlimited resources and the healthcare budget is the fastest growing budget in government in the last 10 years and healthcare expenditure likewise is growing rapidly.

There are examples in the crime fighting world as well as the IT world where real people deal with stuff like limited resources. Law enforcers will tell you privately it is always impossible to eradicate ALL crime in society and some low level “ambient” level of crime is quietly allowed to exist. Of course, the police will usually and vigorously pursue all violent or serious crime, such as murder, robbery, kidnapping etc. Petty crimes such as pickpocketing, illegal money lending and debt collection, littering, speeding etc, they all exist to varying extents in societies and are seldom completely eradicated. This is because the cost of bringing all criminals and lawbreakers to justice is usually too high, not just in dollars and cents, but also from the perspective of the general population’s loss of peace and privacy.

In the IT world, when we buy or deploy a new IT system, let’s say a hospital IT system – If we specify that the IT system’s availability is rated at 99% (i.e. downtime of 1%), it may cost, say, $10 million dollars. But if you want the same system to have an availability of 99.9%, the price may go up to $12 to 13 million. You are paying an extra 20 to 30% for just an increase of 0.9% in availability from 99%. This also demonstrates the principle of diminishing return.

This hobbit suspects (100% speculation) that we are going to incur a lot of costs and inflict a lot of physical pain just because some genius decided that WBIT incidents should be eradicated. The problem is, one is not even sure poking a patient twice (especially by the same person, which is permitted but not encouraged) is even effective in eradicating all WBIT errors. But this hobbit also suspects, in the mythical realm of Middle-earth that bureaucrats live in and when “patient safety” is mentioned, the consideration of limited resources does not exist at all. But the hard truth is, outside of Middle-earth, even for a sacrosanct issue like patient safety, limited resources in terms of money, people and time are very real considerations. This hobbit further suspects that because the public hospitals are not affected because they can print the fancy patient stickers, private sector concerns were not addressed before this new policy was declared.

On 4 Dec 2019, a major private hospital group issued its own circular to all doctors practicing in its hospitals stating that the requirement to take two specimens of blood stemmed from the fact that HSA’s BSG was accredited to this organisation called AABB (American Association of Blood Banks) and that AABB required its members to follow this practice so as to remain accredited with it.

This makes the waters even murkier and begs even more questions. Last I heard, Singapore is a sovereign state and we do many things differently, like driving on different sides of the road. We also spell “organisation” with an “s”, not a “z”. The last time we tried doing things the American Way in healthcare, like Residency, it didn’t turn out well. So, if it is indeed an AABB requirement, then Singapore healthcare stakeholders must ask – what are the benefits of being accredited to AABB? Versus the costs? Not just benefits to HSA BSG, but to ALL Singaporeans and Singapore. Is our situation similar to AABB? Maybe there are many WBIT incidents in USA. What is the number of incidents per, say, 1000 GXMs? I.e. the rate of WBIT in Singapore vis a vis USA and other first world countries?

So many questions, so few answers. If the private hospital circular is factually correct and the private sector is doubling the number of blood specimens taken for GXM just to satisfy some bureaucrat’s desire to fulfill some obscure American accreditation requirement, then it is yet another case of monkey see, monkey do.

Actually wait, this hobbit stands corrected. Monkeys are actually quite intelligent.

 

 

A Word About Locums

Locums are an important segment of the profession, particularly for those of us who work as GPs/Family Practitioners.

This hobbit used to do a lot of locums in his younger days. Mainly because he had mouths to feed and loans to pay. Old coots like me will reminiscence about the bad old days when we were paid as low as $40 an hour, saw 12 to 15 patients per hour etc.

Times have changed. From the chat groups I am in, I hear disturbing stuff about some locums. They may not represent the majority and it is unfair to tar all locums with the same brush. Apparently, there are locums that:

1. Refuse to see more than 4 to 5 patients an hour
2. Refuse to take blood (or perform any procedure) or give injections
3. Refuse to see female patients
4. Refuse to see children
5. Refuse to review lab and radiological reports (even if ordered by the locum)
6. Refuse to turn up the next day (although already booked for say, the entire week) unless you pay him more per hour because the clinic was busier than what the locum thought.

The last point is particularly galling because it is purely a point about lack of honour and professionalism bordering on blackmail. I wonder if our mammoth SMC ECEG covers such unbecoming behaviour.

There are one or two infamous locums in my time that are still circulating perilously in the market now as full-time locums which many GPs are afraid to engage. But most of these stories involve young doctors. They may be full-time or part-time locums.

But this is not another article by an old coot complaining about the state of young doctors and locums. Other than point 6 above, the other five points beg the question – what is the root cause? Is it just bad attitude? Maybe not.

My guess is that maybe it is also due to competency, experience, and risk-averseness.

One cannot but wonder with today’s residency and workload caps, are young doctors trained to cope with high workloads? Also the breadth of experience that the system affords. For example, other than in polyclinics and A&E, many young doctors never see kids after they graduate. In NHG for example, there is no paediatrics or O&G department. With the three clusters now firmly in place and cross-cluster movement of doctors not happening much if at all, how does one get broad-based training?

After all, it doesn’t take much to be a locum. All you need to be is to be fully registered with SMC. But being fully registered doesn’t mean you are comfortable seeing kids or women. The locum may never have been part of a structured training program if he wasn’t a resident.

The other possible explanation is that due to efforts to improve quality and risk-averseness in our public institutions, many things are pushed upwards to more and more senior people and younger people are less and less trained or exposed. This is not new and has been taking place for decades to be sure. In the past, a second year registrar can perform a gastrectomy himself competently. Now, I am not so sure even a second year Associate Consultant can do a gastrectomy all by himself. It’s not entirely a bad thing and its inevitable as society progresses.

But there is a downside when things are carried out too far. I have been told that some locums refuse to take blood because they are “not confident”. And these are not old doctors suffering from failing eyesight or hand tremors. Maybe, it is because many of these “simple” procedures are now carried out by technicians such as phlebotomists and hence the lack of confidence.

Many locums refuse to perform “risky” procedures now (such as H&L injections, ear syringing) because they are not paid adequately if at all to assume the higher risk. They are after all paid by the hour. This is understandable. If I was still locuming, I would maybe do likewise. But taking blood or giving injections and vaccinations are really, really bread and butter.

The point that really needs to be made is that GPs only hire locums because they want their patients to have continuity of care when they aren’t around and that the locums pay for themselves. Yes, the hard truth is that locums have to earn their keep. With locum rates at anywhere from $100 to $120 per hour, a locum has to generate at least $200 to $250 of revenue per hour for the clinic so that it makes hiring the locum worthwhile.

But if a locum refuses to do many things, or caps his work-rate to 4 or 6 patients an hour then it is kind of difficult to justify hiring him. It is really down to the locum’s productivity in dollar and cents. So if a locum wants to stay in the business of locuming (And it is possible to make a very good living by being a full-time locum), he needs to get repeat business from clinics. To achieve this, he has to make more for the clinic than what he takes. It’s that simple.

All of us agree that the quality of locums are really patchy. Sometimes, you really get a locum from hell, and sometimes you get a wonderful one, and all your clinic assistants tell you the locum gets things done with minimal fuss and is even a joy to work with.

Thinking aloud, maybe it is possible to accredit or certify trained locums on a voluntary basis. Maybe a responsible professional body like the College of Family Physicians Singapore can run courses for people to attend and certify these locums of certain competencies and skills. This training is not about the latest in medical science etc but skills every locum needs – common office procedures, like taking blood, ear syringing, I&D, T&S etc as well as certifying stuff like fitness to drive etc.

One may argue that what the locums really need is to attend the Graduate Diploma in Family Medicine (GDFM) course. But frankly, many locums do not have the opportunity to attend a full diploma course. Maybe a Locum Certificate course is all that he can afford for the time being.

I think many GPs in the market who use locums will welcome such a Locum Certificate course. At the very least, the holder of this Certificate cannot say he does not want to give injections or doesn’t know how to take blood and he may even be able to command a small premium in terms of his hourly locum rate.

This reminds me of an old story. Upon finishing his 5-year bond, a brilliant classmate of mine left town and went for his training in the United States as an internist. He is now professor and head of department in a big hospital there. He underwent training in one of the most famous hospitals there. One night while on call, a distressed nurse called him to inform him she could not insert the IV cannula and wanted to call the phlebotomist on-call (but who was not stationed in hospital). My friend said he will insert the IV cannula. At the bedside, the nurse had an ultrasound machine on standby (thinking that the doctor/resident will insert the IV cannula under ultrasound guidance)

He inserted it on the first try without any fuss, without ultrasound guidance, Singapore style. The nurse was extremely grateful. The next morning, his boss, in front of the entire ward team, clapped his back and congratulated him on his grand endeavour of inserting an IV cannula while on call.

I have a bad feeling Singapore medicine may be heading in this same direction.

A Scary Bedtime Story – the SSC Case

The appeal to the Court of Three Judges (C3J) on the psychiatrist Soo Shuenn Chiang (SSC) case had a familiar ring to it. This is evident right from the word go, as delivered by the Chief Justice in The Judgment of the case,

The opening paragraph of the Judgment states,

“For the second time within a short span, this court is faced with a potential miscarriage of justice in a case involving alleged medical misconduct. Once again, the Singapore Medical Council (“the SMC”), which is prosecuting the case, has changed its position from that which it maintained before the Disciplinary Tribunal (“the DT”); once again, the task of the DT was made more difficult by the decision of the respondent, on this occasion, Dr Soo Shuenn Chiang (“Dr Soo”), not to contest the charge or the facts upon which it was based; and once again, the DT failed to carefully consider all the relevant facts and circumstances before it pronounced the respondent guilty. On this occasion, the DT then meted out a sentence that was in excess of both that sought by the SMC and that submitted by Dr Soo. And once again, an outcry from the medical profession sparked a reaction from the SMC”. (emphasis mine in bold and italics)

This hobbit is not a halfling of letters, and with his limited language skills, has to resort to Hokkien to describe what he thinks was the Chief Justice’s mood when he delivered this – in one word – sian. Sian in Hokkien means tired, with more than a tinge of frustration perhaps.

Later on in para. 68 of the Judgment, it was stated, “We make this observation because it seems to us unsatisfactory that reliance has been placed on the medical profession’s propensity to protest loudly over the decisions of disciplinary tribunals and/or courts, with dire warnings of the spectre of defensive medicine, in order to secure in individual cases the result that is desired and/or perceived to be just. The doctor against whom a charge is brought also has a responsibility to look after his own interests. Dr Soo could have contested the case on liability, and subsequently, even after pleading guilty to the Charge, he could have appealed against at least the sentence imposed on him, but he chose to do neither. It is not unreasonable in such circumstances to hold that he ought to lie on the bed that he has chosen to make for himself”.

This hobbit begs to disagree with the learned and wise C3J on the point of a “spectre”. First, it is not a “spectre”, but reality. The consequences of the SMC DT’s judgment (before the C3J’s Judgment) on the Lim Lian Arn (LLA) H&L Case is an increase in both the practice of avoidance defensive medicine and a general rise in price for performing a H&L injection. This is not a spectre, but evidence documented through research and published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. Seventh Month has come and gone and it is now Halloween, but this hobbit hasn’t seen any Ghost of Defensive Medicine yet. If you ask me, it’s more like the Golem of Defensive Medicine, which is very hard to kill once it comes to life.

It is true that a doctor “has a responsibility to look after his own interests”. Unfortunately, “his interests” are also defined according to ‘his’ perspective – which in this case, seems to be Dr SSC wants to plead guilty, pay the fine and move on and get on with his own life. It is his prerogative and perspective, not anyone’s else. Just as we enshrine patient autonomy and patient-centric-ness in promulgating the Modified Montgomery (MM) Test, it should be argued that here, in disciplinary tribunal proceedings, a doctor’s interest has to be defined from a doctor-centric perspective, not public interest-centric or medical profession-centric.

And certainly, arising from such a basis, the doctor has “to lie on the bed that he has chosen to make for himself”. In fact, there is no strong evidence that Dr SSC was unwilling to lie in this bed he made for himself. We shall nominally name this the “SSC bed”.

But what about the other 15,000 or so doctors licensed to practise medicine in Singapore? In our English Common Law system based on legal precedents, it appears that we too have to possibly, if not probably, lie in the same bed, or at least a bed of similar proportions and design, with mattresses, bed sheets and blankets of similar specifications as the SSC bed, when faced with a situation similar to Dr SSC.

That, my friends, is the nub of the problem.

Many of us do not have “the propensity to protest loudly over the decisions of disciplinary tribunals and/or courts” because we felt Dr SSC was dealt unfairly by the DT. Yes, unfairness to Dr SSC is a starting point for dissatisfaction, but the crux of the matter is that the $50,000 fine or $100,000 fine (LLA case) could also apply to me. SSC’s bed can also become my bed. Other than anger, fear is also a very powerful motivator to “protest loudly”.

Legal minds may argue that there is a good chance that Dr SSC’s bed may not fit me when my case is argued in a DT or a court when the SSC legal precedent is tested in real life again. This hobbit always finds this sort of argument rather callous from a doctor’s perspective. After all, which doctor wants to be a “test case” for a legal principle? I would rather be a test case-patient for a new experimental surgery to remove my kidney than a test case in a court.

Therefore, we must assume that the bed made by Dr SSC for himself to lie in, should also apply to some 15000 other doctors as a legal precedent. Is there any other prudent way to look at it?

Even though the appeal from SMC to appeal against itself has succeeded and the case against Dr SSC has been thrown out, many other questions still remain.

Moving forward, the quality of the investigative work of SMC has to questioned. How much can a Complaints Committee (CC) and DT rely on the SMC investigators’ work when they come to their conclusions over a case? In this case, the “facts” were not verified, which led to wrong conclusions being made. As the saying goes- garbage in, garbage out.

Secondly, because the case was thrown out, the issue of sentencing became moot. But it would have been terribly interesting if the C3J had also looked into and commented on how the DT arrived at a fine of $50,000, which was well in excess of what both parties (the SMC lawyers and Dr SSC’s lawyers) asked for.

In other words, there are actually two SSC beds. The first is the bed of pleading guilty and conviction in SSC’s case; this bed had been dismantled and such an outcome therefore made looking at the bed of sentencing unnecessary. But in all probability, most doctors were most uncomfortable lying in the SSC bed of sentencing, not the other bed of pleading guilty.

Finally, a point of secondary importance that could be looked into would be to see if there was any deception or falsehood on the part of the complainant’s brother and husband in firstly asking for the memo from Dr SSC, and secondly in the statutory declaration made by both of them subsequently. If there was deception and falsehood, what further actions could be taken?

All in all, the SSC case has been a very scary incident for many of us, even though many of us didn’t see any ghosts, wraiths or spectres…..

 

A Final Many Words On The LLA Case

And so, it has come to pass, on appeal from SMC against its own Disciplinary Tribunal (DT), our wise Judges have ruled that Dr Lim Lian Arn (LLA) is not guilty of professional misconduct. Everybody has to pay their own costs, including Dr Lim and SMC’s lawyers. Other than the lawyers and the DT, everyone lived happily ever after. And so the story comes to a happy ending.

Not quite.

Learning Points from the C3J Judgment of the LLA Case

First, a few learning points can be gleaned from the Judgment that was issued on 24 July 2019 by the Court of Three Judges (C3J):

One key point was that the SMC’s position to call for a five-month suspension for Dr LLA was “wholly unwarranted” and that the “DT also fell into error by too readily accepting Dr LLA’s submission (made in response to the five-month suspension) that the maximum fine of $100,000 would be appropriate”. (para. 63). This hobbit couldn’t agree more. To me, it means that how a sentence is called for by SMC must be dependent on the specific facts of the case, and that the several calls (at least in four previous cases) before the LLA case by the Court of 3 Judges (C3J) for harsher sentences and sentence re-calibration against doctors must be taken in their specific contexts on these occasions and not to be interpreted as “general instruction” for all cases. This is helpful.

Personally speaking, the most helpful information in the Judgment is it makes our clearly how professional misconduct is to be proven (summarised for brevity and not necessarily for high fidelity):

  • Establish what is the applicable standard
  • Establish whether there is departure from this standard
  • Prove whether this departure is serious enough to constitute professional misconduct. With respect to negligence, it must be “serious negligence” and departure from standards must be “serious disregard” or “persistent failure” to meet the standards set out under the ECEG.

The Judges took effort to state that the lawyer for LLA “was mistaken” when he regarded that a breach of a “basic principle” in the ECEG amounted to professional misconduct. They also stated (para. 30 of Judgment) “there must be a threshold that separates relatively minor breaches and failures from the more serious ones that demand disciplinary action. Were it otherwise, doctors would find it impossible to practise in a reasonable way”. Hurray.

The extent and coverage of expert evidence was also elaborated on. The Judgment stated that it was not enough for an expert to merely state what he or she thinks how things should be done. The expert must also present “the underlying evidence and the analytical process by which the conclusion is reached” (para 43) for the expert opinion to hold sway.

On the subject of informed consent, the Judgment reiterated essentially the basic requirements of the Modified Montgomery (MM) Test:

  • Establish what is relevant and material information to the patient. Materiality of a risk or complication is generally determined by its severity and likelihood and “largely a matter of common sense” (para. 50).
  • Establish that the doctor possesses this information
  • Establish whether the doctor can justifiably withhold this information from the patient

On the subject of defensive medicine, the Judgment defined or described it as “the situation where a doctor takes a certain course of action in order to avoid legal liability rather than to secure the patient’s best interests”. The Judges said that it is a mistake to classify “information dumping” (i.e. doctors overwhelming patients with a deluge of information in order to protect themselves legally) on patients by doctors as defensive medicine because “giving too much information will not avoid legal liability” (para. 54)

Informed Consent

As this hobbit has said below, in our local context, “just follow law”. Whatever the Judges have said is case law and therefore has to be adhered to. But perhaps in my senescence and folly, please allow this old coot blabber a few irrelevant and immaterial things about three points – informed consent, defensive medicine and information dump

MM Test

The MM test is largely a matter of common sense. As my professor (now emeritus professor) once said to me when I was a medical student, “common sense is uncommon”. Were it not so, it would not have been necessary to introduce the Bolitho Addendum to the Bolam test. The Bolitho Addendum is essentially an addendum to require common sense when applying the Bolam test. The MM test essentially requires even more common sense than the Bolam-Bolitho (BB) test because it demands the doctor to establish what is material and relevant to the patient.

Don’t get me wrong, I think being patient-centric is good. How to achieve this is already cast in legal stone (Case law – MM Test) even though I am still trying to grapple with implementing this in my clinical practice. To this hobbit, essentially, the MM Test ignores a basic dimension of existence: time

For one, a three-step test doesn’t quite work for me when I see 40 patients a day and I prescribe hundreds of medications, investigations.

Secondly, what is relevant and material to the patient changes with time: – his circumstances changes and his memory fades. For the same procedure, what is of concern to him one month before the procedure can often be quite different when it is one week or the day before the procedure. And all this could be quite different one-month post-operation when his concerns are quite different from pre-op. As one doctor wisely said, “often the only relevant risk or complication is the one the patient develops post-op”.

Also, there are scientific studies to prove that a patient’s retention of information or advice given to him by the doctor is really quite limited and diminishes with time. You may have told him to your best effort what you think is relevant and material, but he may have forgotten or ignored what you said and he then turns around and sues you.

Another smaller issue about the MM test is the severity and likelihood matrix. As advocated, you should tell the patient the risk if it is more serious, even if it is unlikely). The most serious risk is of course death. Another doctor also said “once you mention “death”, the patient’s mind goes blank thereafter”. But the patient still signs the consent form and undergoes the procedure usually. And then he may also turn around and sue you later.

There is little doubt that the MM test brings increased uncertainty to the practice environment and doctors generally don’t like it. However, that doesn’t mean doctors are against being more patient-centric. It is an argument of false dichotomy to say that just because many doctors are uncomfortable with the MM test it suggests the medical profession is not supportive of being patient-centric.

Defensive Medicine

We now come to the difficult subject of defensive medicine.

Let us now return to the Judgment delivered on 12 May 2017 by CJ and four Judges of Appeal in the Hii Chii Kok vs London Lucien Ooi (a civil suit and NOT SMC case). This was when the MM test was introduced as case law. Here are excerpts from Paras 84, 85 and 87 “The argument for full retention (of Bolam and Bolitho)” (The portions I wish to emphasise are in italics and underlined)

84 What of the view that the Bolam test and Bolitho addendum should not be interfered with to any degree, even as regards advice? The strongest argument in favour of that view is the contention that if the Bolam test and Bolitho addendum were abandoned in favour of a standard that placed greater emphasis on the interests and perspective of the patient, it would spark an unacceptable increase in medical litigation. This would, it is said, have two deleterious effects: first, it would drive up the cost of medical malpractice insurance, and thus increase the costs of healthcare to the public, and second, it would increase the pressure on doctors to adopt what is commonly referred to as “defensive medicine”.……….(rest of para deleted)

85 It cannot be denied that the cost of healthcare and the practice of defensive medicine (which also feeds into the cost of healthcare to some extent) are both real concerns. However, we do not accept that they provide sufficient reason for the court to shut the door to reform entirely. In the first place, it has not been distinctly established that any departure from the Bolam test would in fact have the consequences of more medical litigation, higher insurance premiums and greater healthcare costs….. (portion deleted)….Furthermore, we note that certain factors which have driven up the cost of medical professional insurance in the US – the jurisdiction in which such concerns have been perhaps the most prominent – are not present in Singapore. The US legal system features jury awards which often would, in Singapore, be considered highly inflated; allows contingency fee arrangements (encouraging opportunistic negligence suits); and does not follow a “loser pays” principle of costs (thus reducing the disincentive for litigants or law firms to bring weak or speculative claims). In the absence of such factors in Singapore, we see no reason to believe, without clear evidence, that a carefully calibrated shift in the standard of care is likely to lead to a drastic increase in the frequency and value of medical negligence lawsuits in Singapore.

87 The problem of defensive medicine falls more squarely within the ambit of the court’s inquiry, since it directly implicates the question of whether the proposed standard will fortify or hinder the medical profession’s fulfilment of its duties to its patients. In that regard, we note that unlike a wholesale rejection of the Bolam test and Bolitho addendum, which the court in Gunapathy rightly warned against (at [144]), reform of the more limited nature being considered appears unlikely to contribute significantly to the practice of defensive medicine. The implications of Montgomery are limited to advice, whereas the concerns in defensive medicine pertain mainly to diagnosis and treatment……..We therefore do not think the spectre of defensive medicine is a strong reason to shy away from reform in the area of advice specifically.

Paras 84 to 87 in the 12 May 2017 Judgment on the Hii Chii Kok case was given as consideration on why a departure from Bolam and Bolitho can be seriously countenanced; the promulgation of the MM test then took place later in this Judgment. To summarise:

  • The fear of a rise in malpractice costs and increase in practice in defensive medicine are important considerations as to whether one should depart from the BB test
  • But these fears (as at 2017) were unproven and theoretical at best (i.e. not “distinctly established”)
  • Even if we depart from the BB test, Singapore does not have the pre-existing conditions (like in USA legal system) for a drastic increase in frequency and value of medical legal lawsuits, which in turn will lead to defensive medicine taking root quickly – i.e. contingency fees (i.e. loser pays) and high jury awards.
  • Defensive medicine doesn’t quite extend to the realm of medical advice (of which informed consent is a part of) and is limited to diagnosis and treatment.

Departure from BB test

In a study commissioned by the College of Family Physicians Singapore and Singapore Medical Association to examine the effect of the SMC Judgment in the LLA case on doctors’ behaviour earlier this year, it has been proven that these fears are clear and present and very real.

  • The number of doctors surveyed who provided an H&L injection decreased by 14.6%
  • The median price for the injection increased from the 0 to $100 band to >$100 to $200 band.
  • The number of surveyed doctors who charged more than $1000 went up eight-fold from 8 to 65.

This study therefore documents a quantitative increase in the practice of defensive medicine and healthcare costs when the BB test was departed from . It can be argued that the LLA outcome came about from a botched implementation of the MM test, but it is a departure from the BB test nonetheless.

The ‘free’ SMC process can lead to defensive medicine taking root quickly

The next point that Singapore does not have the pre-existing conditions that the US legal system has is interesting. It is true that Singapore doesn’t have high jury awards and contingency fees. But these advantages apply only to civil suits. For SMC complaints, the environment may be just as favourable for an increase in medical-legal complaints than the US – it is practically free to the complainant (no financial risk) to embark on a SMC complaint! The whole SMC disciplinary process may be no less frightening and painful to the doctor than a civil suit (if not more), hence the flight to defensive medicine in Singapore may be no less quick and intense than the US. So this assumption that Singapore legal system has a more agreeable climate to doctors is correct when applied mainly to civil suits. The doctor does not only flee towards defensive medicine out of fear of being sued in a civil case and paying hefty damages, but also out of fear of getting involved in the SMC complaints and disciplinary process, which is free to the complainant.

Defensive medicine is not static – it goes where the attack is targetted

Lastly, the point on defensive medicine being limited to diagnosis and treatment and not extending to medical advice needs some discussion. Let’s breakdown the words ‘defensive’ and ‘medicine’, for a start.

The practice of medicine is dynamic and ever-evolving. That is why we need to gain 50 CME points every two years, to keep us up to date with the changes in the practice of medicine. The practice of defensive medicine is no different, it is also evolving with the times. It is not static. Just because in the past the practice of defensive medicine is limited just to diagnosis and treatment does not mean that it will always be so.

The word ‘defensive’ has military roots, as in ‘defense’ and ‘attack’. Any SAF serviceman will tell you, defense is not static either. You prepare a robust, in-depth defense where you think the attack will most likely target. High profile cases involving senior doctors accused of not getting informed consent send a strong signal that patients (and lawyers) are focusing their efforts in this area. These well-known cases include Dr Eu Kong Weng, Dr Ang Peng Tiam, Dr Leslie Lam and this LLA case. It doesn’t matter if the complainants were successful or not, just the pain and trauma of going through responding to a complaint is sufficient motivation for doctors to focus their defensive efforts to prevent more complaints in this area.

Defensive medicine is divided into avoidance and assurance defensive medicine. Ordering more and unnecessary tests and investigations is a classic example of assurance defensive medicine because a doctor is afraid he will be complained against or sued for a missed diagnosis. Similarly, an information dump carried out because a doctor is afraid he will be complained against or sued in the area of medical advice, is in the opinion of this hobbit, a new form of assurance defensive medicine. The medical profession should not rigidly limit ourselves to what was previously described – that defensive medicine only exists in diagnosis and treatment. Defensive medicine will occur where the doctors think they will be attacked, be it in the areas of diagnosis, medical advice or treatment.

Information dumping
That brings us to the statement that information dumping is not defensive medicine because “giving too much information will not avoid legal liability” by our learned Judges. The judges are of course absolutely correct since from where they sit – what is inefficacious in avoiding legal liability in the court room or a disciplinary trial should not be considered as defensive medicine.

But as practicing doctors, I suppose, we have to look at things more upstream. As the age-old saying goes, “prevention is better than cure”. What is inefficacious in a disciplinary trial or the court room is an inefficacious or useless cure. But it may still work as a preventive measure. This is because it is human nature to take comfort in numbers or quantity. There are so many examples of this. We usually feel better when we write a longer answer to an exam question when compared to a shorter one (the test scores may have no correlation to the length of answer of course). We take psychological refuge in buying a thicker textbook than a thin one (whether we actually finish reading the textbook or understand what’s written inside is another matter altogether).

It is for the same reason that our consent forms are getting longer and longer. A longer consent form looks formidable and gives us psychological security. Remember the days when we could combine both the surgical and anaesthesia consent-taking into one page? Those days are gone. And if they still do exist, many would wonder – will such a short form suffice?

Due to information asymmetry, the buyer of a service also derives satisfaction and gauge quality by substitute measures of quantity (even though there is little correlation between quality and quantity). An inpatient given a lengthy discharge summary which is no more than a “cut-and-paste” job may think the medical officer has been diligent while a medical officer who has assiduously prepared a concise one-page discharge summary may be less appreciated. For about the same amount of money, a patient given 5 different drugs for common cough and cold often thinks he has been given quality treatment and may consequentially conclude the other doctor who gave him only 2 drugs earlier was tardy.

So, both doctors and patients derive comfort and satisfaction from quantity. This is just simple human nature. If that is so, we will also believe that with more information engendering more comfort and satisfaction, complaints are therefore less likely to occur. It is therefore no surprise that information dumping will be adopted in an attempt to prevent complaints from occurring, even though it is inefficacious in avoiding legal liability.

This psychological comfort derived from quantity is accentuated when there is greater uncertainty, as is the case with the MM test when compared with the BB test. The greater uncertainty arises because It is extremely difficult for a doctor to titrate accurately the exact amount and nature of information that is material and relevant to a particular patient in a particular context under the MM test. This hobbit thinks most doctors believe it is more likely that a patient is dissatisfied with less information than more. As such, most doctors will intuitively also believe that it is probably easier to prove a lack of informed consent arose from insufficient information rather than excessive information.

It should therefore come as no surprise that a doctor will give more information than what is actually needed.

Conclusion

After this long spiel of about 3300 words, what are the take-home messages? It’s still more of the same. We are a law-abiding profession in a society that enshrines the rule of law. Whatever is law, be it legislation or case-law, must be followed. There is no other way. Whatever this hobbit rambles or blabber about, is irrelevant and immaterial.

In the area of medical advice, this hobbit will still give substantially more information than he previously did in the BB test era. This is my form of Survival Medicine.

The answer to the question of when and how a generous amount of information limps across the line and qualifies as information dump, is best left to minds that are far more brilliant and incisive than this hobbit, who admittedly suffers from a little lack of this precious commodity called common sense. This lack may be a result of the imperfect hobbit condition that I am born into.

Academic Meritocracy and Medical School Admissions

Recently there has been some disquiet about the NUS Faculty of Medicine (sorry, this YLLSOM thingy never quite jelled with an old coot like me. My degree is from Faculty of Medicine, not some guy who gave a lot of money to NUS) accepting students from ‘less than the best academic’ records and more varied sources (read: not just RI and HCI).

A certain Anthony C.H. Leong wrote in The Straits Times (23 July 2019), “What is wrong with the meritocratic old ways of judging by the quality of the candidate’s academic results, further refined through an interview? We tell our children to work hard academically to get the relevant results for the course they wish to pursue in university, only for them to be denied a place by some populist policy. Their parents will have to cough up a fortune to send them overseas. I don’t think those who are unfairly rejected, especially those who do not have the means to go overseas to study, would think very kindly about their country and its professed meritocracy”.

There are quite a few points raised in this quote that needs addressing. First, we need to understand what is the purpose of a medical school, especially a state-funded medical school. The purpose of the NUS Faculty of Medicine or YLLSOM (OK lah, he did give a lot of money to get his name on this school) is to produce the better doctor, or the best doctors it could to serve Singapore. This hobbit emphasises “to serve Singapore” because YLLSOM is largely state-funded (i.e. by taxpayers). To serve Singapore may be of secondary importance if it was privately funded, but it is not.

The primary purpose of YLLSOM is not to fulfil someone’s aspiration to be a doctor, although the individual’s aspiration and the YLLSOM’s primary purpose are not in conflict with each other, philosophically speaking. This may sound somewhat brutal, but that’s  the hard truth. They only come into conflict because of the scarcity of resources – the number of places YLLSOM can take, with the limited resources it has (funding, manpower, space etc), versus the number of people who want to become doctors.

Second, a primer on meritocracy. The word meritocracy comes from the word ‘merit’ obviously. Meritocracy is about putting people in power and/or privilege due to the ability they have, and not due to other factors, such as wealth or social position/inherited titles. We seldom say it, but the people rewarded in a meritocracy, by a meritocracy, are actually the “meritorious” (deserving of merit).

The Cambridge Dictionary describes meritocracy as a “social system, society, or organisation in which people get success or power because of abilities, not because of their money or social position”.

The next point about a meritocracy is that there are many forms and notions about meritocracy. What Mr Anthony Leong has described is academic meritocracy. This concept of meritocracy is widely held by large swathes of society, no thanks  to cultural or even governmental norms. But it is not the only form of meritocracy. For example, when we reward athletes for their performance in competitive sports or highlight citizens for acts of kindness, service to community, valour, or moral fortitude, these are, in a way, also forms of meritocracy, but the norms are different. A National Day Award from the government, such as the Public Service Star, is based on non-academic norms of meritocracy. A person who swims the fastest 100m butterfly in an Olympic Game gets the gold medal and is given S1M. The world and Singapore society have decided that he is “meritorious” and hence deserving of the medal and cash award. But it is another form of meritocracy that is not academic meritocracy. Academic meritocracy is simply a form or meritocracy based on academic ability and performance.

Dynastic and feudal China since  the Sui Dynasty in 6th century AD practised academic meritocracy through the imperial exams. People who excelled in these exams were put in positions of power as officials of the imperial court. Sometimes, the Emperor himself witnessed the final round of these exams himself and marked some of the scripts! Surely this is sponsorship and belief in academic meritocracy of the highest order! Yet one of the main reasons China faded as a superpower in the Qing Dynasty is that it clung to outdated norms of academic meritocracy. People were rewarded and appointed because they excelled in the Classics and Confucian Texts and not on Science and Maths. The world (especially Europe) moved on while China was stuck in backward feudalism. So even as we support and uphold meritocracy, we need to examine and revisit what are the norms of society so that the form and substance of meritocracy remains relevant to the needs of society. Academic meritocracy is no exception.

Back to YLLSOM. As aforesaid, its main aim is to produce the best doctors that it could to serve Singapore. Academic meritocracy is nothing more than an allocative tool to achieve this main aim. Academic meritocracy is not an end in itself.

There are several ways to look at what YLLSOM is trying to achieve by moving slightly away from pure academic criteria for admission into its ranks. First, it is an admission that academic performance is NOT the only meritocratic norm for admission.

Secondly, the correlation between a good doctor and outstanding A level academic performance is not that strong. It is true that you need to have above average academic performance to survive the rigours of medical education. But is a straight As at H2 with three H3 paper distinctions student more likely to make a good doctor than a student with 4As at H2 with no H3 papers? Or will the student with 2A and 1B at H2 necessarily make a worse doctor than a student with straight As at H2 level? The answer is obviously “no” to these questions. Beyond attaining a minimal level of academic achievement necessary to suggest the student has the ability to complete his MBBS, academic performance at A levels does not predict or correlate with his eventual performance as a doctor.

Thirdly, by admitting people from different backgrounds, YLLSOM is perhaps admitting that it is important to have diversity in the medical profession. We need brilliant people to be the next professors of medicine and make scientific breakthroughs. We also need less brilliant (but still intelligent-enough) people to be  the doctors serving patients in the community. Both are equally important, and everyone else in between.

Diversity also prevents groupthink. The risk and downside of groupthink is very real, whether in the medical profession of any organisation. Just look at the Hong Kong government now and the unrest in its society. It is probably a result of groupthink in its highest ranks that prevented them from seeing the grave repercussions that have arisen from trying to push through the now infamous Extradition Bill.

Actually, the policy of choosing people not just based on the best academic performance for Medicine is not new. It is just expressed in a different form. Those of us who entered NUS Medical School in the eighties will remember that the government then had a policy of deliberately trying to shunt the best students to other fields such as Engineering or the Arts because it felt it needed the best academic talent not to be concentrated just in Medicine. There was apparently a PSC officer at the medicine admission interviews (sitting at the extreme left or right of the panel of interviewers) who would offer you “a deal” of sorts – would you want to consider a teaching scholarship? Or a PSC scholarship to Cambridge to read Maths? We never knew whether these offers were real or not, but we were all advised by our seniors to say “no” to show our resolve to become doctors. I know of quite a few people with A level “perfect scores” who did not get into medicine. And while there was no evidence to prove so, people with less than perfect scores seemed to have a better chance of getting into Medicine in the eighties.

In summary, this hobbit thinks:

  • The job of YLLSOM is not to give out places as awards or rewards for academic excellence under the framework of academic meritocracy. It’s main job as a publicly funded medical school is to produce the best doctors it could for Singapore.
  • Academic meritocracy, which is meritocracy based on academic ability, is not the only form of meritocracy. Academic meritocracy is often used as an allocative tool, but it is not an end in itself.
  • The norms of meritocracy are as important as meritocracy itself. The norms determine who is meritorious, and these norms have to be examined and revisited from time to time so that meritocracy remains relevant to the needs of society.
  • Beyond attaining a required level of academic performance that suggests the person can withstand the future rigours of a medical education, there is little correlation between actual performance as a doctor and his A level results.
  • Diversity in a medical school cohort is important, because each cohort has to fulfil different roles in society. Diversity also prevents groupthink.

 

WMED Part 2: The SSC Case, What Goes Around Comes Around

On 21 May 2019, the SMC issued a press statement regarding psychiatrist Dr Soo Shuenn Chiang’s case that is to put it mildly, interesting.

Just to recap, Dr Soo was fined $50,000 by SMC for professional misconduct [Condensed from a previous posting: Weapons of Mass Ethics Destruction (WMED), published 9 Mar 2019]:

  1. Dr SSC was a victim of a patient’s brother who posed as the patient’s husband to deceive Dr SSC.
  2. Apparently, this imposter has not been punished so far for his act of pretending to be someone else.
  3. Dr SSC was fined $50,000 for writing and giving a memo to this imposter free-of-charge.
  4. The imposter told Dr SSC the patient was apparently suicidal and needed to be admitted to IMH against her will under the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act.
  5. Dr SSC’s main sin was that of failure to verify the imposter’s identity and authorisation. It is important to reproduce here the entire paragraph (para. 30) from the Grounds of Decision (GD):

We also note that the preventive actions (i.e. verification of identity and authorisation) to be taken were not onerous. As submitted by Counsel for the SMC, the steps to be taken by Dr Soo were simple. We could only conclude that the failure of Dr Soo to take such steps reflected both a lack of concern for or appreciation of the required standards and an indifference to the patient’s medical confidentiality.

Now fast forward to the 21 May Press Statement. The SMC is now applying to the Court of Three Judges (C3J) for Dr Soo’s conviction to be set aside, as SMC has received new information that “raises doubt on the circumstances surrounding the incident, in the interest of justice”.

It is very important to note that the original application by SMC to the High Court was “for an extension to appeal for a reduction of the fine imposed on against Dr Soo”. In other words, the original intent was a reduction in the fine/punishment has now been changed to quashing the conviction. If this goes through, Dr Soo will NOT be guilty of professional misconduct, and not be fined less. He won’t be fined at all, if the conviction is set aside.

Apparently after the DT’s decision to fine Dr Soo $50,000 broke, the patient’s brother posted his version of the story on social media. Arising from this, “SMC approached both the patient’s brother and husband to record their statements. These statements were not obtained by the Complaints Committee (CC) prior to its referral of the patient’s complaint against Dr Soo for a formal inquiry by a Disciplinary Tribunal (DT)”.

What this seems to suggest is that:

  1. The CC worked on a different set of information that was deemed as facts. The CC had come to the conclusion that it had to refer Dr Soo to the DT.
  2. The DT, working on the same set of facts, convicted Dr Soo and fined him $50,000.
  3. However, since taking statements from the patient’s brother and husband, there is a new set of information and “facts”.
  4. This new set of information or facts “raises doubt” on the circumstances of the incident, which of course also raised doubt as to whether Dr Soo should have been convicted at all
  5. Therefore, the SMC will now be applying to C3J to set aside the conviction.

This is a Face Palm X 50,000 times moment. One Face Palm per dollar.

Firstly, allow this hobbit to declare that this blog is not an attempt to influence the outcome of the appeal hearing, but a discussion about what has apparently transpired so far that led to Dr Soo’s conviction and the SMC’s appeal to set aside that conviction, based on what is publicly available especially the 21 May press statement and the SMC DT’s Grounds of Decision for this case.

Basically, SMC CC and SMC investigators (if any were involved at all) did not verify the facts, then proceeded to refer the case to DT, which in turn convicted and punished Dr Soo for not verifying the facts.

The irony is so thick, you can cut it with a lightsaber-sized diathermy. The accuser who accused Dr Soo for not verifying the facts was in fact, itself guilty of not verifying the facts.

This hobbit doesn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Someone should write this into a play or something like that and make it into a literature textbook for secondary school students.

But it is good that at least some folks now finally appear to understand the word “doubt”. Because SMC disciplinary proceedings are ‘quasi-criminal’ proceedings, “doubt” is an especially important word. In criminal proceedings, the accused is deemed innocent until proven guilty. The burden of proof in criminal proceedings is “beyond reasonable doubt”, which is a very high threshold or stringent test to convict a person. That means a person can only be found guilty in a criminal proceeding when it is beyond reasonable doubt he is indeed guilty.

The same threshold applies to SMC disciplinary proceedings, although one must be forgiven if one questions whether the test of “beyond reasonable doubt” has been really competently applied in some cases, given how doctors appear to so easily convicted.

So, when you did not verify the facts before hand, and you are now unsure if the facts were even correct in the first instance, how you can say Dr Soo is “beyond reasonable doubt” guilty of professional misconduct”? Naturally, the SMC now has to apply for the conviction to be set aside, “in the interest of justice” after prosecuting him in the first place. The SMC is now just only appealing against itself but of course, the ultimate power and decision to set aside or not the  SMC DT Judgment, rests with the independent C3J.

Let is now go back to parts of para. 30 of the Grounds of Decision again for the sucker punch:

“We could only conclude that the failure of Dr Soo to take such steps reflected both a lack of concern for or appreciation of the required standards and an indifference to the patient’s medical confidentiality”.

Please note the bits in bold. If you edit the bold bits accordingly, it can also apply to whoever in SMC who was supposed to verify the facts before the CC and DT could decide on the case:

“We could only conclude that the failure of SMC to take such steps reflected both a lack of concern for or appreciation of the required standards and an indifference to Dr Soo’s rights to justice through a disciplinary process that is based on verified (not purported) facts surrounding the case”.

Obviously, the SMC also suffers from not having the services of a “verificationologist”!

An important question that needs to be asked is, how true was the original complaint, in the light of new information? All complaints made to the SMC are accompanied by a statutory declaration, which is a very serious undertaking. If the facts are so different, and that the statutory declaration was made based on false information, what further steps should be taken, to investigate and perhaps even punish the person who made a false statutory declaration? Was the disparity between old and new information just a difference in perspective or opinion, or a complete falsification of events and facts and an act of deception by a person?

Given the fact that investigations can now only be performed at the CC level and NOT the DT level, another question that needs to be asked is, what actual investigations (if any) were done for Dr Soo’s case? The larger question is, does SMC just take the complaints at face value and proceed to hear any case at the CC level, just because a complaint is accompanied by a statutory declaration?

Since we are on the subject of how to deal with complaints, it is heartening to note that on the same day (21 May 2019) it was reported that the MOH Review Workgroup (to review SMC) would look into screening out repeat cases and vexatious and frivolous complaints. MOH said that “such cases can make up about 10% of the complaints to SMC annually”. Currently, as long as someone makes a statutory declaration (which can be done for free at the SMC office), a CC has to be formed to look into the complaint, no matter how unreasonable or frivolous or vexatious the complaint appears to be.

MOH also said that “patients may face a time limit when filing complaints against doctors to the SMC in the future”. (CNA Report: Patient may face time limit to file complaints on misconduct of doctors: MOH). MOH noted that “quality of evidence would be diminished and that such a limit makes the process fairer”. The same report said that there were complaints brought to SMC even more than 15 years after the incident happened.

The suggested time-bar for making complaints has been said to be between 3 to 6 years (according to a Straits Times article dated 21 May 2019 – “Workgroup’s report aims to make medical disciplinary process fairer and faster”), which is reasonable and in fact already very generous. Currently there is no time bar at all for complaints made to SMC.

The Straits Times report also said this review workgroup will also clarify what exactly constitutes professional misconduct as well as informed consent. A clear understanding of both are necessary so that doctors will avoid practicing defensive medicine and over-treating patients and push up healthcare costs.

This hobbit thinks these are steps in the right direction and are long overdue. In addition, SMC should look into dismissing vexatious and frivolous complaints with costs so that these complainants know that there is a potential financial downside to their actions. This is not new, as The Law Society is already empowered to do so.

There appears to be some light at the end of tunnel. What has been reported is encouraging. But more can and should be done. This includes looking into how SMC, CC and DTs are constituted. How are the people who sit on SMC, CC and DTs chosen and trained to do the job they are supposed to do? The same principles apply to SMC prosecution lawyers – how are they chosen? How are they instructed by SMC? Who reviews their performance? In the area of informed consent, how can we have more clarity and flexibility at the same time (as said by Senior Minister of State for Health and Law Edwin Tong)?

The expectations are high that this workgroup will make a big difference to the currently manifestly unsatisfactory situation. But as a profession, we are also used to big disappointments. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. I will still practise Survival Medicine for now.

 

If…..Would Be……

Declaration: this article is completely 100% satire and opinion, and hence does not come under the purview of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA). Nowadays,  one cannot be too careful about such things…..

OK, here we go…..

If private hospitals were handbags…..

  • Mount Elizabeth Orchard would be a Birkin (The older tai tais’ favourite)
  • Mount Elizabeth Novena would be a Kelly (More stylish for the younger but equally rich tai tais)
  • Gleneagles would be a Chanel 2.55 (always reliably upmarket)
  • Raffles would be a Kwanpen (local and upmarket)
  • Mount Alvernia would be a LV
  • Thomson would be a Coach
  • Farrer Park would be a Kate Spade
  • Parkway East would be a Bonia

 

If recent healthcare events were like Marvel Comics Universe heroes….

  • Informed Consent would be Spiderman (Swinging from doctor centric to patient centric and very sticky)
  • Third Party Administrators would be Thor (getting fat by doing little or no work)
  • HIV data leak would be Loki
  • NEHR would be like the Avengers Headquarters (Always getting attacked & repeatedly destroyed)
  • MOHH would be Captain Marvel (missing all the action when half the universe died)

 

If SMC affairs were likened to Marvel Comics’ Universe Infinity Stones

  • Lawyers would be the Power Stone (makes all other stones more lethal)
  • MOH would be the Mind Stone (can make SMC ownself appeal against ownself)
  • SMC Disciplinary Process would be the Time Stone (Can make time stop and really delay you to no end)
  • The latest SMC ECEG would be the Soul Stone (controls all life)
  • The Modified Montgomery Tests would be the Space Stone (warps spatial realities and laws of physics and increases uncertainty)
  • Court of Three Judges would be the Reality Stone (Can override SMC-judgment realities)
  • SMC Leadership possesses the Pym Particles like Antman (nowhere to be seen when a crisis like The Snap strikes)

 

If Public Hospitals were Star Wars Planets

  • Toa Payoh would be Alderaan (completely destroyed)
  • SGH would be Coruscant (very crowded, crazy traffic and damn stressful)
  • NUH would be Naboo (since it has produced three Sith Lords in succession)
  • TTSH would be the forest moon of Endor (where the fuzzy cute teddy bears live)
  • CGH would be Mon Calamari (Where all the blur sotongs came from, like Admiral Akbar)
  • SKGH would be Hoth (Frozen and Forgotten in the North)
  • NTFGH would be Cloud City of Bespin (All the verandahs look like they are in the clouds)

 

If doctors were Lord of the Ring places

  • CFPS would be like Gondor
  • Academy of Medicine Singapore would be like Rivendell where the very cultured and elegant immortal elves rule (or so they would like to think)
  • The Alumni would be the Dwarven Moria in the Misty Mountains
  • SMA would be Hobbiton
  • COMB would be Barad-dur, and
  • Chee Yam Cheng would be Gandalf

 

If public healthcare were like the Game of Thrones

  • The public healthcare clusters would be like the kingdoms and households of Westeros
  • IMH doctors are like the Night’s Watch order (they guard The Wall and the rest of us don’t really know or want to know what’s beyond it)
  • MOH HQ is like the Targaryens in Pentos, Essos (Not really in charge anymore but still want to go back to the glory days, but be careful, they still own the dragons)
  • MOHH is like the House of Stark (it has taken over effective control over the running of King’s Landing)
  • Medisave, Medishield Life, Medifund, Fee Benchmarking, CHAS, Pioneer Generation Package, Merdeka Generation Package make up the Faith of the Seven

 

If Healthcare were like the world of Harry Potter,

  • Lawyers would be folks skilled in Parseltongue (A language that is associated with the Dark Arts)
  • Managed Care and TPAs would be dementors (They can suck the life out of you slowly)
  • Doctors who are senior hospital administrators would be Animagi (Can transform into animals once they are promoted to these positions)
  • Doctors who work in MOH HQ would be Metamorphmagi (who can change their appearance into something completely different once they work in MOH HQ)
  • Medical Concierges who ask for 15% or more of your bills can be considered as Death Eaters (like Voldemort)

 

If medical schools were like car brands

  • YLLSOM would be like Toyota (Cheap and Reliable, but boring)
  • Duke-NUS would be like Maserati (great engine sound, but performance-wise still cannot compete with the best)
  • TTSH would be like Nissan and Renault alliance (a bit confusing, considering its linkup with Imperial in the LKCSOM
  • Most Irish Medical Schools would be like Saab (no longer seen here)

 

If tertiary public hospitals were supermarket chains….

  • NUH would be Cold Storage (more atas)
  • TTSH would be Sheng Siong (Cheap and friendly)
  • SGH would be NTUC Fairprice (trying to be atas, like Fairprice Finest)

 

 

Emails To The Hobbit 2019

It’s been a long time since we published some of the letters this blog has been receiving. Actually, no one writes letters anymore and they send the blog emails instead, and so, we have re-titled this column as “Emails To The Hobbit”

 

Email 1

Dear Wise and Short One

Up Yours

I am a staff of a Wizard Malpractice Indemnity Scheme known as Am Pee Ass.

This is what happened: An elderly hobbit came seeking help from our indemnity scheme member, hereto known as “Brown Wizard”, to complain of bloatedness and blood in his poop. The Wizard told the hobbit he needs to do a full check up. The hobbit lay down, let Wizard touch his tummy, then followed instructions to lower his trousers and turn over. A digital rectal examination was done. Subsequently, the hobbit went home, and told his family what happened. Outraged, the family got the elderly hobbit to make a statutory declaration and demanded that the Council of Wizards explain why the Wizard did such an invasive check without consent.

Brown Wizard didn’t know what to say. And likewise neither do I. Do you have any advice? BTW, why are hobbits so anal? (pun intended)

Yours sincerely

Rectus Loquitus

Case Manager, Am Pee Ass

 

Dear Rectus Loquitus

Thank you for being so straight talking. The problem is that you did not adhere to the Modified Monty-Monty test which states clearly that you have to take into consideration what are the relevant factors for this elderly hobbit, and take a hobbit-centric approach. I hope this makes sense to you. Because it doesn’t make any sense to my simplistic mind.

 

Yours confusedly

Hobbitsma

 


 

Email 2

Dear Hairy Feet

It’s A Fine World

I understand that my Case Manager has contacted you already about the elderly hobbit who complained against me because I examined him per rectally without informed consent. Actually I have another problem that I wish to confide with you. I was busy tending to my many injured animal friends when suddenly  a magical raven came to deliver a message. “Hi, I came from Rosie, the hobbit Samwise’s wife. You know he’s always having an eating disorder, eat until so fat. Can I get a letter from you to certify that he has this illness, so that I can get the prescription refilled?” In good faith, I wrote the parchment and passed it to Raven to bring back. Unfortunately, it wasn’t Rosie the wife, but Samwise’s mistress the enchantress Lavender who wanted the parchment to pass to the wife, so that Rosie will divorce Samwise.

Samwise is now suing me for emotional distress and marital discord. Council of Elders have ruled that I was at fault, and must pay 50,000 gold pieces. The fact that Samwise’s family situation is complicated, or that Lavender impersonated as Samwise’s wife to get confidential information were discounted or even ignored. The fact that I was busy looking after many sick animals was also not a mitigating factor. They were of the opinion that I could have easily verified the identify with a few simple questions: Does Samwise snore in bed? What’s his underwear size? When was the last time he shaved his feet? And so on. I have been found solely responsible, because I did not ask verify the Raven to confirm that Raven is truly sent from Rosie  and the Raven is indeed who it claimed to be.

I just found out from my case manager Rectus Loquitus that Am Pee Ass doesn’t cover fines and I have to pay the 50,000 gold pieces out of  my pocket! I am now flat-out broke!

Please help!

Yours tragically,

Brown Wizard

 

Dear Brown Wizard

This is truly unfortunate. What I suggest you do is to stop treating all these poor injured animals and go into private practice where you can charge more. Generally, humans and elves pay more. Please consider starting up your practice in the posh Mount Expensive Hospitals. Either the Old or New one will do. Then the next time you get slapped with a big fine, you can still pay.

Yours Cynically

Hobbitsma

 


Email 3

Dear Ring Bearer

Survival Medicine

I need some reassurance. I am an ICU Associate Consultant in a public hospital. And I am your Survival Medicine’s Number One Fan.

A few days ago, an elderly man was found unconscious at the road side after a hit-and-run incident, in extremis. The ambulance crew brought him in, the emergency team intubated him and admitted him into ICU. The next day, 3 anxious people turned up. They claim they are the wife and children. I don’t believe them. I don’t dare to believe them. Maybe it’s the second wife and HER children who wanted his fortune. I demand to see the marriage certs, birth certs and IC of all three. As well as the man’s IC. They produce all. But, the man in the hospital bed now looks NOTHING like the photo in the IC. I don’t think this is the real family, I have no way to verify. The policeman says they found these anxious people at the site of the incident. Oh- maybe they are the driver and passengers of the car that hit the old man! I refuse to update any of them, and escalate every decision of care to the Ethics Committee. I feel good that I have protected patient’s confidentiality, and avoided paying a hefty fine in case I am guilty of not verifying a person’s identity. Do you think I will survive all this?

Yours sincerely

Dr Veritus Verify

Associate Consultant

Department of Vericationology

Wa Gia Si General Hospital

 

Dear Veritus Verify

You will definitely not just survive, but thrive in this new age. I hope your patient survives too.

Yours shortly

Hobbitsma

Emeritus Consultant Verificationalist

 


Email 4

Dear Katek,

Non-Clerical Referrals

I need your advice in a most delicate matter. I am a cleric specialising in the art of clairvoyance. Many fellow clerics refer patients to me for investigations because I can see things that other clerics cannot see and my work helps my colleagues diagnose better. These patients are referred to my department (i.e. Department of Diagnostic Clairvoyance) and my cleric assistants then take clairvoyance images which are later sent to me to read and interpret and report on. These reports are then sent back to the clerics who sent these patients to me for their follow-up. Recently, arising from a case of missed follow-up for a patient referred by a cleric accidentalist, the Lords of Judgement have decided that for referrals from accidentalists, the reports should not be routed back to the accidentalists. Instead, the clairvoyance clerics can decide the appropriate specialists that should follow up these patients referred to us, for example bone-setting clerics, heart clerics etc.

I am most distressed. I chose this specialty because I am rather allergic to physical contact with patients and I do not want to assume primary cleric-patient responsibility. I just like to read clairvoyance images with no direct patient contact. How do I decide who to refer to when I haven’t even met the patient or talked to him or examined him? Does it mean that for all patients referred by accidentalists I now have to take over as the primary cleric? A good and proper referral involves a lot of judgment and is not just looking at images and then performing a simple clerical (pun intended) task like filling a form

This is not what I signed up for. The Lords of Judgment are not trained in the Art of Healing like us clerics, can they change the way we clerics practise?

Yours sincerely

Robert Cork

Most Senior Clairvoyance Cleric

Mount Expensive Hospital (Old Branch)

 

Dear Cleric Cork,

I am so sorry. I really cannot help you there. As you know in the Realms we live in, whatever the Lords of Judgment say, we must comply, humans, elves, dwarves and hobbits included. We just have to suck it up. Only the House of Power can override what the Lords of Judgement say by issuing edicts. And it is not going to happen until the Fifth Age of Man (i.e. a few thousand years from now)

Yours Powerlessly

Hobbitsma

Weapons Of Mass Ethics Destruction (WMED)

Writing this blog used to be a leisurely affair for this hobbit. When he suffers from constipation, halitosis, ingrown toenail or insomnia, he will write a few words to expurgate the symptoms.

But it’s different now. SMC Judgements are coming so hard and fast it’s hard to keep up with them and their absurdity. This hobbit has mouths to feed and feet to shave and consent to take (that complies with the Modified Montgomery Test).

If you thought the Lim Lian Arn (LLA) case was bad, then this one involving psychiatrist Dr Soo Chuenn Chiang (SSC) takes the cake.

Background

There are some very interesting facets of this case that need to be pointed out:

  1. Dr SSC was deceived by the patient’s brother who pretended he was the patient’s husband.
  2. Apparently, this imposter has not been punished so far for his act of pretending to be someone else.
  3. Dr SSC was fined $50,000 for writing and giving a memo to this imposter free-of-charge (At least, presumably, Dr LLA got paid for his H&L injection). In other words, there was NO pecuniary or any other self-interest for Dr SSC to issue the memo.
  4. The imposter told Dr SSC the patient was apparently suicidal and needed to be admitted to IMH against her will under the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act. IMH is the only hospital facility that can do this, not NUH, where Dr SSC worked.
  5. By the Disciplinary Tribunal’s own admission, there was no clear evidence that the memo from Dr SSC led to the patient being issued a Personal Protection Order (PPO) even though admittedly the patient suffered emotional distress from the memo.
  6. The SMC lawyers asked for a $20,000 fine and made it amply clear they were not asking for suspension. Dr SSC’s lawyers asked for a fine of $5,000.
  7. The DT gave the fine of $50,000 after taking guidance from the Wong Meng Hang case even though BOTH the SMC lawyers and Dr SSC’s lawyers said the sentencing matrix as given in the Wong Meng Hang case did NOT apply to the current case. The Wong Meng Hang case refers to the case where the doctor was struck-off after he caused the death of his patient while performing liposuction.
  8. When it came to sentencing, the DT’s starting point was the MAXIMUM fine of $100,000, and after considering the mitigating factors, they came up with $50,000.
  9. Dr SSC’s main sin was that of failure to verify the imposter’s identity and authorisation. It is important to reproduce here the entire paragraph (para. 30) from the Grounds of Decision (GD):

We also note that the preventive actions (i.e. verification of identity and authorization) to be taken were not onerous. As submitted by Counsel for the SMC, the steps to be taken by Dr Soo were simple. We could only conclude that the failure of Dr Soo to take such steps reflected both a lack of concern for or appreciation of the required standards and an indifference to the patient’s medical confidentiality.

At this point, I need to catch my breath because the absurdity herein is nothing but breathtaking. In case you may have missed the point – This DT fined Dr SSC $50,000, a figure far exceeding what both sets of lawyers asked for, taking guidance from a case precedent/case law that both sets of lawyers had stated did not apply in this case. Breathtaking, isn’t it?

Verification

Let us first talk about verification. Is it really “not onerous”? Verification really involves at least two steps, each of which is onerous:

  1. Verification of Identity and Relationship
  2. Verification of Authorisation (whether general or specific authorisation)

To verify this person’s identity, the person will have to at least produce his NRIC and marriage certificate (as husband). Many case notes do not have next-of-kin information like name, NRIC or handphone number. A verification on the phone is not good enough in this case, bearing in mind that the imposter is the patient’s brother and may have much of the personal information of the patient and her husband anyway. To be fool-proof, you need to conduct a physical “in-person” verification.

Even after the doctor has verified the identity and relationship, there is still the need to verify whether he is authorised by the patient to know the relevant information in question. An example is the spouse asking for an update of the patient. This sounds reasonable but the spouse may be undergoing separation or divorce proceedings with the patient. You will almost always have to counter-check with the patient. Verification of authorisation is practically impossible in this particular case because the patient is not physically present to express authorisation and even if physically present, is she of sound mind to give the authorisation? A memo of authorisation signed by the patient is also not good enough because you never know if the memo is fake or the patient is of sound mind to issue such a memo.

So how could the DT arrive at the conclusion that “the steps to be taken by Dr Soo were simple”? Can we see the DT’s “action plan” to do so, in order that we simple people, the humble folks who practise medicine on the ground, can understand why it’s “simple”?

This hobbit is a simpleton. And even I cannot see why it’s “simple”.

As a doctor, every day, we have to balance between the need to do no harm, to do good and the need to respect a patient’s confidentiality. When analysing the ethical issues underlying a medical legal case, you cannot analyse one factor, such as confidentiality, in isolation while ignoring the others. Dr SSC is obviously trying to prevent harm from happening to the patient because she was apparently suicidal. Dr SSC was trying to do some good. In the course of it, he fell to a scam by an imposter. All this was given short shrift by the DT and he was given a $50,000 fine.

Sentencing and Penalty

When this happened, Dr SSC was an Associate Consultant. His take-home pay (including call allowance etc) then was probably about $10,000 a month. In other words, he took home practically nothing for five months and lived off his savings, all because he wanted to protect a psychiatric patient from harming herself by writing a memo to her ‘husband’ who turned out to be an imposter.

It is also interesting how the DT appears to come up with the figure of $50,000. Paras 16, 31 and 32 of the GD implies that they likened the old maximum fine of $10,000 to the new maximum fine of $100,000 (a factor of 10). Under the old fine regime, Dr SSC’s case would have warranted a fine closer to $5,000. Hence under the new fine regime, Dr SSC should be fined $50,000 (a factor of 10 also).

Firstly, if you read the parliamentary proceedings when the Medical Registration Act was amended and the maximum fine was raised from $10,000 to $100,000, it was raised to fill a gap:  The gap between $10,000 and the minimum suspension of three months. This was the intent of Parliament and MOH when the law was changed. This is clearly stated in Parliamentary proceedings of 11 Jan 2010. It is not a simple “everything x 10”.

But just to make things clear, this Hobbit does not think that Dr SSC is without fault. Medical confidentiality was breached, even though inadvertently and, probably out of some naivety to do good (Yes, trying to do good can be viewed as being naïve in today’s medico-legal climate). He needs to be advised, warned, or even censured. But a $50,000 fine?

General Deterrence

Again, we need to go back to the issue of deterrence. In particular, general deterrence, – so that other doctors are generally deterred from repeating Dr SSC’s mistake. There is also the need to uphold the public’s trust and respect for the medical profession. These are the usual reasons given when giving a deterring sentence, which the DT did give, and the SMC lawyers did ask for.

If someone actually thinks Singaporeans’ respect and trust for doctors is eroded because Dr SSC fell prey to an imposter and thereby breached medical confidentiality, that someone is insulting the intelligence of Singaporeans. Singaporeans are far more insightful and cleverer than that.

As for our doctors, you can bet your last dollar we are deterred big-time. Already, there are new circulars and work instructions issued in many hospitals and clinics stating that they no longer entertain telephone enquiries of patient’s condition by relatives. Also, all requests for memos by patients and relatives have to routed to the Medical Records Office (MRO) of hospitals who will process such enquiries (including verification of identity, relationship and authorisation, of course). These new work processes will take at least a few days and entail fees to be paid. Therefore, much more money and time are involved.

Weaponization

Let us now take a deeper dive into one of the underlying issues of the day behind both the LLA and SSC cases. Reading the GDs of these two cases, you will see that the DTs went to great lengths to take guidance from precedents, case law and the comments of Judges in other medico-legal cases before arriving at the judgement(s) and sentence(s) of the case at hand.

Case law and legal precedents are powerful features and tools of the Common Law System which Singapore adopts. But as this Hobbit sees it, there is a small problem that needs to be understood and addressed in the context of medico-legal cases. When senior judges (such as High Court Judges or Court of Appeal Judges) set precedents and case law, they are almost always interpreted and used by people almost as wise and acquainted with the Law as themselves – lawyers and other judges. They can see the nuances of each case law and to apply them precisely and with finesse. Precedents and case law are great tools for master craftsman of the law.

But with medico-legal cases, these tools end up at Complaints Committees (CC) and DTs, and they are manned mainly by doctors. These CCs and DTs see ethical issues as mainly simple black and white, not in many contextual shades and nuances. They are also not helped very much by lawyers who (understandably) want to win and win big in an adversarial legal system. Hence, case law, precedents and even the SMC Ethical Code and Ethical Guidelines (ECEG) get “weaponized” to secure a conviction. Put in harsh sentencing (without considering fully why you need harsh sentencing and the effects such harsh sentencing have on society at large) in the name of general deterrence and we get Weapons of Mass Ethics Destruction (WMED).

The fact is, doctors are not as clever as lawyers and judges. Lawyers and judges are of a higher plane than us lowly MBBSes. That is why lawyers are never named in obituaries. When a person dies, he may thank his pet dog, domestic helper, and doctors and nurses but NEVER lawyers.

Yup, we are in the same level as pets, and domestic helpers. Pretty down-to-earth folks. Like domestic workers, we have frequent interactions with bodily fluids and excreta and even occasional dalliances with pus. How can such people really and fully understand and use delicate tools like case law and precedents? What we can handle with our limited intellect is perhaps clear and detailed legislative laws and regulations to govern our medical practice. Brilliant legal stuff like the Modified Montgomery Test is probably only understood fully by MBBS (Honours) doctors and there are only a handful of such mutants every 10 years.

The last question that needs to be asked is perhaps the role of senior legal officers in the DTs. This has been so since 2010 when the MRA was revised, and after several controversial rulings by SMC Disciplinary Committees (precursors to DTs) in the preceding few years. The “lawyerization” of DT is supposed to address shortcomings in previous DCs and put DTs on a sounder legal footing; they are supposed to inject legal expertise, sound judicial thinking into the DTs, so as to prevent doctors on DTs from doing legally imprudent things, so to speak. But nine years down the road, as anyone can see, the problems and controversies with DT rulings have not diminished significantly at all. Someone should look into this.

Consentologists and Verificationologists

The joke on the ground is that with the LLA and this SSC case, you will need an army of “Consentologists” and “Verificationologists” to keep the system going. Maybe the SMC and SAB can introduce these as new specialties. This hobbit will sign up for the training. And so much for the Minister for Health saying the current rate of growth of the MOH Budget is “unsustainable” just earlier this week. It will become even more unsustainable with Consentology and Verificationology taking their vice-like grip on the day-to-day operations of healthcare services.