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    President's Forum  

Caring For Doctors

A recent letter of complaint against the doctors at a government polyclinic was circulated far and wide via an e-mailed chain letter. It raised the ire of doctors who received this letter from their email.

The letter started as a grouse on not being able to register, near closing time, the complainant’s two daughters who were down with ‘gastric flu’, when there was still a queue of 70 patients waiting to be seen. The complainant then went into a histrionic tirade against the doctors in that polyclinic, and vicariously, the medical profession and healthcare system in general. "Where is the compassion of these educated people?" she asked, and "hope(s) that all worthy Ministers and Singaporeans would take a good look at the attitude of these people at the polyclinic and the Ministry of Health that I have encountered". The Ministry of Health swiftly rebutted these allegations and put the matter in perspective.

The SMA-News editor had debated over the merits of printing that letter and the Ministry’s reply in this issue for reflections by the medical profession. Both these documents are after all explicitly in the public domain. The complainant had addressed the letter to ‘my dear friends’ with a request to circulate it ‘to everyone you know so that the people will take a closer look at how we choose our doctors and how the taxpayers’ money is spent". She also appealed unsuccessfully to the Straits Times Forum editor to print her letter. However to reprint such a malicious letter even in a medical journal for doctors would only serve to perpetrate the hysterics in print and be an accessory to her intentions.

The SMA-News has published letters in the same vein before. For example, in an article ‘Rashomon Redux’ from the Ethics files in September 1996 issue of the SMA News, such a letter maligning a doctor for failure to attend to the complainant’s deceased mother was published. The doctor’s account was verified by the patient’s friend who witnessed the event: it showed the complainant was confabulating. Doctors understand the process of the grief reaction especially when death occurs suddenly. How that complaint differed from the present one was that the power of Internet broadcasting was then in its infancy stage. The damage done by the complainant by spreading falsehood was more easily contained. The SMA could play a role in reconciling her to the loss of her mother.

In an editorial on handling complaints of patients in the September 1998 issue of the Singapore Medical Journal, SMA reiterated the responsibility of the medical profession to investigate complaints however trivial.

It is the responsibility of those in charge of handling complaints to care for doctors and the healthcare system by vigorously rebutting complaints if proven baseless and malicious. This


"These complaints take out the joy and meaning from the practice of medicine for doctors so maligned even when they are subsequently exonerated."


is for medicine to be practiced in the interests of patients. Complaints by such ‘ugly’ patients were invariably sent to the highest possible level and often copied to all and sundry, insidiously encouraging the practice of ‘defensive medicine’. These complaints take out the joy and meaning from the practice of medicine for doctors so maligned even when they are subsequently exonerated. Fortunately, such ugly patients are exceedingly few.

Shopkeepers may insist that the ‘customer is always right’. Shopkeepers, however, are not expected to practice and advocate beneficence. We are constantly reminded that doctors should care for patients and serve society selflessly. Society must also be reminded to care for doctors and allow them to practice medicine in the best interest of all patients. The patient is not always right and the doctor whom the patient complained against is not always wrong.