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Imposed veil of secrecy may lead to further questions and speculation

By Ghui

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong has declined to name the individuals that were responsible for the Hepatitis C outbreak in Singapore General Hospital (SGH) last year. While I appreciate that a blame culture would be counterproductive to trying to improve service standards, it is important to note that there is a fine line between blame and accountability.

The Hepatitis C outbreak had far reaching consequences as far as healthcare goes in Singapore. 25 people were affected and there were 8 fatalities. This is not something that should be trivialised or swept under the carpet.

Given the magnitude of this outbreak taken together with the fact that this is the first large scale public healthcare glitch, it is important for not just justice to be done but for justice to be seen to be done. I am not suggesting sacking people for the sake of it. Given the number of people across various departments that appear to have been negligent would suggest that the current procedures are wanting.

This begs the question of whether it should be the individuals that are punished or some kind of institutional responsibility which leads to the further question of who should represent the hospital as the face of such institutional responsibility.

I am not advocating sackings just to "close the case". I also take on board that sacking or prosecuting junior stuff who may not know any better will not solve any long term issues. That said, I note that there were four director level staff that have been given warnings and financial penalties. Are these four senior staff so negligent that it might perhaps warrant negligence prosecutions? Did these senior members of staff uphold standards in line with international standards imposed on their counterparts in other developed countries? All these questions remain to be answered.

Further, why were the amounts of financial penalties not divulged? I can understand the institution wanting to protect its staffs' identities to perhaps avoid vigilante justice or undue media intrusions but why are the amounts not revealed?

Is it because they are so small that it would cause public outrage or is it because there were so high that it would lead to further public questions on just how serious the lapses of judgment were?

By refusing to reveal the extent of the penalties, the Ministry of Health (MOH) is not doing itself any justice. Any goodwill that was generated as a result of conducting an inquiry in the first place will be eroded by this self imposed veil of secrecy. In fact, it may lead to further questions and speculation which will not only be damaging to the reputation of MOH but may also run counter to any reforms that need to be made as a result of this incident.

It is also important to note that in most other countries, a fall out like this would lead to a very public resignation of the person at the helm of either the hospital and/or the minister in charge of the department in question. In our case, neither has happened. Both the MOH and the SGH serve the public and it is crucial that the public is able to trust that their interests come before the protection by these institutions of one of their own. Regardless of fault, shouldn’t there be some semblance of collective responsibility?

At the very least, shouldn’t the fine amounts be made public so that the public can be the judge of whether these are sufficient?