Privacy of patients taken seriously: NSC

Generic graphic depicting the waiting room at the National Skin Centre.
PHOTO: Privacy of patients taken seriously: NSC

I visited the National Skin Centre (NSC) on May 26 for a review by a senior consultant.

I was surprised to see a junior doctor accompanying the consultant.

After a brief review that lasted no longer than five minutes, I was given some forms, signed by the doctor, and told to see the nurse outside for further instructions.

The nurse ushered me into another room, where a Caucasian female doctor asked me to strip for an examination of my skin for research purposes.

I was confused but complied as I thought this was part of my treatment. When that was done, the nurses asked me to fill up a survey form containing some questions that were quite personal.

I also was told to sign a form indicating my consent for the Caucasian doctor to conduct research on me. This form was signed by the consultant. It was also supposed to be signed by a witness to ensure that patients understand the procedure before they are examined for research. This part was left empty.

A few months before this, photographs of my naked body were taken at the NSC studio but I was not told what they were for. It was the photographer who later informed me that it was part of the research, to show the before and after of the treatment.

The whole exercise could have been better managed so that it was less stressful and patients do not feel like they are under duress.

While I accept that junior doctors need practical training, the least the NSC could have done was to introduce the trainee to me and explain why he was there. Also, the senior doctor could have informed me that I had the right to ask the trainee to leave the room - which I would have done.

Would the Ministry of Health, Singapore Medical Council and Personal Data Protection Commission clarify on hospital patients' privacy rights?

The NSC should respect the privacy of patients and conduct itself in a professional manner.

Patients accept and do what the doctors and nurses tell them to do out of respect and thinking it is part of the treatment. But it is also important for doctors and nurses to practise good bedside manners.

They should put patients at ease and not behave in an imposing manner, expecting patients to fill up research and survey forms.

Letter from Cheng Choon Fei

Reply from NSC

Privacy of patients taken seriously: NSC

We thank Mr Cheng Choon Fei for his valuable feedback about his experience at the National Skin Centre (NSC) on May 26.

During the consultation visit, Mr Cheng was invited to participate in a research study. Such studies are important because they help search for cures to illnesses and diseases.

While the NSC's role is to treat patients, it also focuses heavily on training and research.

It is common practice to have a junior doctor accompany a senior doctor for further training and learning in skin diseases. For such consultations, senior doctors will introduce junior doctors to patients and request for their presence during the consultation and skin examination.

During the consultation, the specialist had introduced and explained the reasons for the research study to Mr Cheng. He was given a consent form to fill in should he choose to participate in the study.

Regarding whether a witness is required to sign the consent form, ethics guidelines require this only when the patient does not understand or read English and requires a translator.

In Mr Cheng's case, he was proficient in English. After the consultation he was seen by a research coordinator, who shared more about the research protocol. He was given time to clarify any doubts or to withdraw from the study at any time.

Mr Cheng was then seen by a dermatologist for examination, who explained the study again.

Having an independent study team doctor is another step in NSC's research protocol to ensure that patients have given consent in research studies.

This study involved a standard skin examination and filling in a questionnaire without photography or personal questions.

Based on NSC's records, Mr Cheng was not involved in other research studies. The previous photography and surveys were part of routine clinical care and not for research purposes.

The survey, the Dermatology Life Quality Index, is a standard clinical tool for assessing the day-to-day concerns of patients.

NSC remains committed to conducting high-quality and ethical research for medical advancement that will translate to better patient care.

We would like to take this opportunity to assure Mr Cheng that his concerns regarding patients' privacy and data confidentiality are taken very seriously. We did not find any breach in the standard of care during his visit.

We would like to thank Mr Cheng for his feedback and will seek to improve our services further.

Our quality department has contacted Mr Cheng to follow up on his concerns.

Angerline Wong (Ms) Senior Corporate Communications Executive National Skin Centre

This article was first published on June 21, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.