The Court of Three Judges heard an application by the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) on Monday (8th July), which sought to set aside the conviction of Dr Soo Shuenn Chiang, who pleaded guilty to and was fined $50,000 in November last year for breaching one of his patient’s confidentiality.
Dr Soo was alleged to have, without verifying the identity of a caller claiming to be the patient’s husband, written a memo containing the patient’s confidential medical information; and failed to take appropriate steps to ensure that such information was not accessible to unauthorized persons.
The incident in question occurred on 20th March 2015, when Dr Soo received a call from the patient’s brother claiming to be the patient’s husband at that time, and was informed that the patient was suicidal.
Acting on this information, Dr Soo wrote a memo referring the patient to the Institute of Mental Health for a suicide assessment risk, which was addressed to “Ambulance staff / Police-in-charge”. He also left instructions for his clinic staff for the memo “to be passed to the patient’s husband who had called earlier that same day”.
It turned out that the memo reached the patient’s brother’s hands and he used it to obtain a Personal Protection Order against the patient. The patient then made a complaint against Dr Soo for failing to verify the identity of the caller.
After having been granted an extension of time to appeal by the High Court in March, the SMC also recorded new statements from the patient’s brother and ex-husband, and sought to have them admitted before the appeal court, to which Dr Soo had no objections.
During the hearing, it was revealed that the brother stated that he did not misrepresent himself to Dr Soo that he was the patient’s husband; instead, he did clarify at that time that he was “calling on behalf of the patient’s husband”.
This appeared contradictory to Dr Soo’s clinical notes stating that the patient’s husband had called; even the patient herself was disputing the truthfulness of the account of events in the new statements.
Against this, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang and Judge of Appeal Judith Prakash all raised their concerns as to the adequacy of the facts presented by the evidence.
“You are proceeding on the assumption that we have to do the best we can on the available facts,” Justice Phang told Mr Chia Voon Jiet, counsel for the SMC.
As Mr Chia pressed on his first argument that a reasonable doubt has been raised as to the factual basis for Dr Soo’s guilty plea, the judges queried as to whether Dr Soo could be acquitted when the facts were “unsettled”.
The court further thought that the appropriate cause of action would have been to send the matter back to the SMC’s Disclipinary Tribunal (DT) for the fresh evidence to be tested. Against this, Mr Chia took the position that it would not be appropriate to remit the matter, given that there would be prejudice to Dr Soo in terms of time and stance.
Ms Mak Wei Munn, representing Dr Soo, made brief submissions as to Dr Soo’s conduct, taking the position that it does not fall within serious negligence despite a potential breach of ethical guidelines, with which Mr Chia also agreed with.
When queried by CJ Menon as to Dr Soo’s position on how he wished for the matter to be dealt with, Ms Mak, after taking instructions from Dr Soo in court during a short break, stated that his preference would be to have the matter “disposed of today”, regardless of whether his conviction was upheld or otherwise, though he would be leaving this issue “to the hands of the court”.
While Mr Chia made his reply to Ms Mak’s submissions, the court noted that an expert report tendered in the proceedings below, in suggesting that Dr Soo had departed from common practice, did not seem to have sight of the fact that Dr Soo had given specific instructions for the memo to be passed to the patient’s husband.
The court eventually reserved judgment, and gave SMC four weeks to seek the expert’s clarification on his views taken in the report together with evidence not brought to his attention. Dr Soo will have two weeks thereafter to put forth his position on the expert’s opinion.