'Book a doc's visit' websites risk running afoul of rules

SINGAPORE - Website that let people book doctors' appointments at the click of a mouse may risk breaking rules that bar clinics from touting for patients.

At least six of them now allow users to make appointments on the Net - twice as many as last year.

But the Ministry of Health (MOH) has warned that they must not display some clinics more prominently than others or include information that encourages people to use their services - such as special rates or freebie offers.

The websites generally act as directories and list doctors' basic contact details. However, some highlight clinics that allow patients to make real- time bookings - in return for a monthly fee.

Doctors who subscribe may also receive more help with online marketing.

A spokesman for the ministry said that listing the health-care providers is allowed under the Private Hospitals and Medical Clinics Act. But the information has to comply with its publicity regulations.

For example, there should be no patient testimonials and all of the clinics listed must have "equal prominence".

The sites are also barred from giving information that compares and contrasts the quality of the services on offer, or suggests that one provider is better than another.

This is to avoid clinics pressuring patients to purchase their services, according to the publicity regulations.

The websites work in a variety of ways.

At Compare Clinic - launched two months ago - doctors are offered a free basic account that simply lists their information. But for a monthly fee, they can make use of the appointment booking function and be labelled a "premium clinic".

Tab A Doctor, which was launched in January, does not charge doctors and makes money through advertising alone.

Listings on DocDoc are free but the site will eventually start charging a flat monthly fee, said its chief marketing officer Jon Samsel.

DoctorPage, founded last June, also lists clinics for free.

However, those who pay subscription fees - which start from a few hundred dollars - get a "premium doctor" stamp, which means patients can make real-time bookings.

The start-up's chief executive Max-F. Scheichenost said it decided what could be put on the site following close consultation with the ministry and its own lawyers. He said it is aware of the regulations, which is why it has not posted patient testimonials.

Compare Clinic co-founder and director Virginia Chan said it is in communication with the ministry and has set up a meeting with officials to discuss and "better understand the requirements" of the regulations.

Colorectal surgeon Dean Koh, who is trying out one of the bookings websites, said he is generally wary when it comes to social media.

"A good experience for one person may be a bad one for somebody else," said the surgeon, who practises at Colorectal Clinic Associates in Mount Elizabeth Novena Specialist Centre.

"And if a review is too glowing, does it amount to advertising?"

But senior finance manager Andy Ho thinks more information could be included, such as how patients fared after treatment. This is because simply stating doctors' qualifications is not enough to help customers decide.

The 35-year-old, who recently tried to find an eye specialist using the bookings websites, added: "It is good as a starting point in the process of searching for a doctor, but doesn't go beyond basic information.

"At the end of the day, it is also about trust - whether you trust what your friends tell you, or what is stated on the websites."


Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.