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Today
S$50,000 fine for psychiatrist who failed to protect patient’s confidential info
By Neo Chat Chin
March 6, 2019

Psychiatrist Soo Shuenn Chiang

Psychiatrist Soo Shuenn Chiang

SINGAPORE — A psychiatrist from the National University Hospital (NUH) has been fined S$50,000 for failing to verify a caller’s identity before writing a memo to refer a patient to the Institute of Mental Health.

The caller turned out to be the patient’s brother and not her husband as he had claimed.

And although the memo was addressed to ambulance personnel or the police officer-in-charge, it was handed to the brother, who used it to support his application for a personal protection order against the patient.

The personal protection order was granted by the Family Court.

A three-member disciplinary tribunal found Dr Soo Shuenn Chiang guilty of failing to maintain patient confidentiality.

The tribunal — chaired by cardiothoracic surgeon Joseph Sheares — had wanted to impose the maximum fine of S$100,000, but reduced it by half after considering mitigating factors.

In the grounds of decision released on Tuesday (March 5), the tribunal said that a breach of patient confidentiality is a serious and important matter.

This case justifies a deterrent sentence “so as to create public awareness, more particularly among potential offenders, that punishment will be certain and unrelenting for this type of breaches and offenders”, it said.

The patient’s name was not disclosed in the grounds of decision to protect her identity.

On Jan 19, 2015, the patient was admitted to NUH for an overdose of a pain relief drug.

She was reviewed by Dr Soo for adjustment disorder with depressed mood and alcohol misuse. She was noted to have a risk of self-harm as she had a history of depression.

The woman was discharged the next day.

Two months later, Dr Soo received a phone call from the woman’s brother. Dr Soo did not check the caller’s identity by asking for his name, identity card number or contact number, and comparing these against NUH’s records.

The memo he wrote contained her confidential medical information, and he instructed his clinic staff member to pass it to the caller, believing he was the patient’s husband.

While Dr Soo’s response to the phone call was appropriate in trying to rapidly get help for the patient, he failed to take proper care to ensure the memo did not fall into the wrong hands.

Dr Soo’s lawyers said that it was an “honest oversight” during the course of seeing 17 patients that day.

The psychiatrist accepted that he had caused potential harm to the patient.

The tribunal agreed that the lapse occurred on a hectic day, but said that the preventive actions he should have taken by verifying the caller’s identity were simple and “not onerous”.

“We could only conclude that the failure of Dr Soo to take such steps reflected both a lack of concern for or appreciation of the required standards and an indifference to the patient’s medical confidentiality,” the tribunal said.

But it agreed that Dr Soo’s misconduct was not as egregious as a previous case, in which a doctor — who was with the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital — was fined S$10,000 in 2011 for accessing the electronic medical records of two patients not under his care, but who were his ex-girlfriends.

At the time, S$10,000 was the maximum fine.