Help hold down health costs, new docs told

SINGAPORE - Doctors are responsible for making sure their patients do not pay through the nose for needless treatments, Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan said on Sunday.

Rising costs are the greatest challenge facing the health-care system today, he told an audience of 500 medical graduates.

Dr Balakrishnan was speaking two weeks after a court dismissed surgeon Susan Lim's appeal against her conviction for overcharging a patient from Brunei's royal family.

Doctors, said the minister, should always know more than their patients. And because of this asymmetry of information, there is never really a free market in health care.

"Arguments about subsidies, insurance and third-party payments merely transfer the bill around. The key cost drivers are the doctors," he added. "I'm appealing to you, that even as we delve deeper into our specialities, do not lose sight of the fact that we are also responsible for our patients' wallets."

The minister, an ophthalmologist, told the National University of Singapore graduates that they must learn humility and look at the bigger picture.

"More lives have been saved by engineers and public health inspectors who ensure proper sanitation and safe food," he said. "As doctors, we are used to being the top in class, but remember we are only curing. The real big difference lies in preventing people from falling sick."

He urged them to exercise professional leadership and always put patients first. This means retaining their trust and making time to train younger medical staff. "We are standing on the shoulders of giants... We are where we are now because someone had taken the time to teach us, mentor us."

Dr Balakrishnan also joked that medicine is a " far nobler profession" than politics.

Researcher Kong Say Li, from the Genome Institute of Singapore, said she thought the speech was spot on.

"He reminded us of the importance of values, and that we are part of something bigger," said the 37-year-old. "Very often we might forget that in the face of our ambitions."

The audience was gathered on Sunday for a commencement ceremony in which diplomas were handed out. In all, more than 10,000 NUS graduates will enter the job market.

Dr Lim, 58, was found guilty of professional misconduct after charging about $24 million to treat cancer sufferer Pengiran Anak Hajah Damit for six months in 2007. She was given a three-year suspension and fined $10,000 - which was upheld by the appeal court.

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