SMC: Interim orders against 2 doctors accused of preying on vulnerable patients needed to maintain public trust

SINGAPORE – Public confidence in the medical profession would have been dampened if no restrictions were placed on two doctors accused by a woman of taking advantage of vulnerable patients for sex, the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) said.

The published grounds of decision issued on Wednesday (Aug 19) by the Interim Orders Committee (IOC) set up to look into this case noted that details of the allegations had appeared in The Straits Times on April 10.

It said the media coverage had “amplified the potential for public confidence in the profession to be undermined if nothing is done”.

Among other things, the two doctors in private practice – Dr Julian Ong Kian Peng, a surgeon, and Dr Chan Herng Nieng, a psychiatrist – were accused by the woman in a June 2018 compliant filed with the SMC of having exchanged details of patients and colleagues to “satisfy their immoral desires”.

Dr Ong then brought a defamation suit against the woman in July 2018. He lost the case on April 3 this year as the district judge found the offending statements made by the woman to be substantially true.

Dr Ong is appealing against the decision.

Following the court decision and the ensuing public outcry against the two doctors, the decision to have an disciplinary hearing on this case was issued by the SMC’s Complaints Committee on May 12, almost two years after the complaint was made.

The IOC was set up to see if steps need to be taken to protect the public until the disciplinary tribunal decides on the case. Its decision is valid for 18 months unless the disciplinary tribunal issues its decision before then.

The IOC said its task was “not a fact-finding one, nor is its remit to make any judgment on the merit of the criminal charges” but to assess the “risk of harm to members of the public, as well as what is in the public interest and what is in the medical practitioner’s interests”.

Among other things, it decreed that both doctors will not be allowed to contact female patients other than for medical purposes from June 18, this year.

Explaining the need for such interim injunctions, the IOC said: “Shortly after the (court) decision was reported, there was swift public reaction in the press calling for Dr Chan and Dr Ong to be dealt with sternly by the profession.

“They indicated sustained and widespread condemnation for the actions of the doctors, and pointed to a risk of public confidence in the profession being undermined if their conduct was left unchecked.”

It quoted a letter from the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) that appeared in the Forum pages of The Straits Times which said it was “appalled” that the SMC had not suspended Dr Ong.

Aware said the messages between the two doctors revealed during the district court hearing were “deeply misogynistic” and “a betrayal of what their professions stand for and their oath to do no harm”.

In asking for the IOC to take action, the SMC’s counsel argued that although the actual or planned sexual interactions with female patients “may have been consensual, that did not detract from the potential damage to public confidence”.

The professional watchdog said this is because the underlying principle is clear: “Doctors must scrupulously avoid sexual contact with patients, whether their own or those of others.

“Whether those patients were willing to engage in sexual activities was beside the point.

“Once sexual boundaries between doctors and patients were transgressed, the medical profession’s image suffered a stain – one which it cannot simply ignore.”

The IOC decided that the two doctors may continue to practice for 18 months or till the decision of a disciplinary tribunal is reached.

During that period, the doctors are not allowed to contact female patients for any purposes that are outside the scope of medical practice.

Any contact as part of the medical practice is to be made by a clinic staff unless the patient is in hospital or in their clinics for consultation or treatment.

They are also not to send the personal data of their patients to any other person unless this is required by their medical practice or by law.

In addition, should Dr Chan need to respond to an call to care for a patient, he may do so but must record his dealings and submit it to SMC for review.

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