Costs must not hinder SMC’s role to protect public: Gan

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.
PHOTO: Costs must not hinder SMC’s role to protect public: Gan

Financial considerations, such as the funds to hire the right lawyers, should not hinder the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) from carrying out its duty of regulating the medical profession, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.

The SMC must carry out its public duty to ensure that patients’ interests are protected.

The minister said this in a written answer to questions from Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam in Parliament last week.

“If (the SMC) fails to pursue such cases (because of) financial considerations, there will be a loss of confidence in its ability to safeguard the interests of patients and in the integrity of the medical profession,” Mr Gan said.

He gave the assurance that the SMC “will continue to ensure that the legal fees of the law firms engaged are reasonable and commensurate with the work done”.

Mr Giam’s question was: How many doctors found guilty by the professional watchdog of wrongdoing and who had to pay the SMC for the cost of hearing have had their bills reduced following court taxation?

Taxation in this case refers to getting the High Court to arbitrate a bill when there is a dispute following a disciplinary hearing.

A doctor convicted in a disciplinary hearing usually has to bear the cost incurred by the SMC. If a doctor is cleared, each side bears its own cost.

The minister also gave details on cases of medical bills that were disputed between 2011 and last year.

The SMC concluded a total of 44 disciplinary hearings in those three years. Six doctors were cleared of the charges.

In the rest of the cases, six bills were disputed and the taxation process was completed.

The disputed bills were reduced by a total of $926,000. Some of the remaining 32 bills are still being negotiated or are awaiting outcome of appeals, said Mr Gan.

One of the cases under negotiation is the more than $2 million in costs that the SMC billed Dr Susan Lim.

The High Court reduced the amount to under $700,000, but the SMC is appealing against the huge cut.

Dr Lim had been found guilty of overcharging her Brunei royal patient and both she and the SMC had employed senior counsels as their lawyers in the disciplinary hearing.

The costs involved in the case were further raised by the appeals made to the High Court.

Mr Gan also noted that in the six cases where taxation took place, the SMC recovered between 37 per cent and 78 per cent of the bills presented to the doctors.

He explained that taxation determines the proportion of the costs incurred by the winning party that the losing party has to bear, adding: “It must not be confused with whether the legal fees incurred were reasonable.”

He said there is usually a “considerable difference” between what the losing party eventually pays and the costs incurred by the winning party.

Mr Gan also pointed out that “invariably, the legal expertise required and the costs of the disciplinary process increase with the complexity of the cases”.

salma@sph.com.sg

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This article was first published on November 11, 2014.
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