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    Jul 25, 2014

    A tighter act to discipline doctors

    OVER the past couple of years, the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) has been criticised for its long and, sometimes, imperfect disciplinary process.

    Now, steps are being taken to shorten the disciplinary process to punish errant doctors, following recommendations by a panel convened by the SMC in 2012.

    These will also reduce or limit cost to both the complainant and defendant, while improving SMC's legal capabilities.

    Currently, when a complaint is lodged with the SMC, it goes to a Complaints Committee first, which will decide if it needs to be dealt with by a Disciplinary Tribunal - which, at present, does not include a lawyer.

    The Complaints Committee waits for around five complaints (against different doctors) to pile up before it meets to address them. The result: delays.

    Of the eight disciplinary-hearing cases concluded this year, one was based on a complaint made in 2009 and another in 2010. Changes have been proposed to speed up the process.

    For example, weekly rosters will be in place so that the Complaints Committee can meet as soon as it needs to.

    There will be mandatory pre-inquiry conferences - along the lines of pre-trial conferences in court cases - where the parties involved will discuss timelines.

    A legal service officer has also been seconded to SMC and the review committee has further proposed having a lawyer on all Disciplinary Tribunals to "help to increase the speed and efficiency, and the way the proceedings are run". The SMC is already acting on this.

    The Ministry of Health said it will work with SMC to amend the relevant laws.

    There was also a recommendation to have only non-SMC members on the Complaints Committee to "remove the perception of conflict of interest". But the ministry noted that it will take time and effort to build up the necessary expertise.

    "The training of doctors and laypersons to be more heavily involved in disciplinary proceedings will also need to be planned, structured and continuously maintained," said MOH.

    Chia Shi-Lu, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Health, said the recommendations would make SMC's processes "more robust, and provide a better legal grounding so that the various judgments can better stand up to scrutiny".

    He said members of the public and doctors will also be more confident of the inquiry processes, as there will be better pre-hearing and post-hearing avenues for discovery and appeals.

    The recommendation to have an appointed lawyer in a Disciplinary Tribunal was described as "timely" by lawyer Chia Boon Teck, as the proceedings are quasi legal in nature.

    "In fact, it bewilders me that they have got this far without such an individual embedded in the processes," he said.