Doctors' charges: Revisit need for fee guideline

Guideline on consultation fees printed by the Singapore Medical Association that was scrapped in 2007.
PHOTO: Doctors' charges: Revisit need for fee guideline

SINGAPORE - The verdict of the Court of Three Judges, in dismissing an appeal by Dr Susan Lim against her professional misconduct conviction by the Singapore Medical Council (SMC), brings about a welcome closure to a contentious issue that had split the medical fraternity into two opposing factions ("Surgeon Susan Lim loses appeal"; Tuesday).

The "free market" proponents have no qualms about charging what they think is the "market rate". To them, medicine is just another means of making a living, and patients come to them of their own volition.

"Caveat emptor" (let the buyer beware) being a dictum that is repeated ad nauseam, they think it must be permissible to charge what the market can bear. After all, in materialistic Singapore, is not wealth the main measure of a doctor's true worth?

The opposing faction is made up of the "traditionalists", whose most conservative members frown upon all forms of advertising. To them, medicine is a noble calling that is different from other professions, and it is crass to even promote one's practice.

Patients will find them by word of mouth, hence advertising is superfluous at best and a tool for false representation at worst.

The appellate court has decided that "a doctor cannot rely solely on the morals of the marketplace" and that there is "an objective ethical limit" on medical fees, in both private and public health care, that operates outside of contractual and market forces.

Doctors, especially those in private practice, now face a very real problem. What is this proverbial "ethical limit" that has been bandied about? What may seem like a reasonable fee to one might appear to be "fleecing" to another, thereby leading to unnecessary complaints to the SMC.

There used to be a fee guideline published by the Singapore Medical Association (SMA), but this was scrapped in 2007 as it was deemed anti-competitive by the Competition Commission of Singapore.

It is surely timely to revisit the need for such a guideline.

The Academy of Medicine, SMA and the Health Ministry should also come together to provide answers to the perplexing question of what the "ethical limit" is.

Huang Shoou Chyuan (Dr)

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