Suspension terms of 2 doctors tripled by judges over attempted sex with female patient
The two senior doctors had their appeals against their convictions and suspension terms dismissed by the Court of Three Judges.
SINGAPORE: Two senior doctors suspended over professional misconduct towards a patient had their terms at least tripled upon appeal by the Singapore Medical Council (SMC), which found their original suspensions "manifestly inadequate".
Colorectal surgeon Julian Ong Kian Peng and psychiatrist Chan Herng Nieng had also appealed against their convictions and suspensions, but this was dismissed in a judgment issued by a Court of Three Judges on Friday (Dec 2).
Instead, Dr Ong's suspension was increased from eight months to two years, while Dr Chan's was increased from five to 18 months.
The two men had exchanged messages discussing the sexual exploitation of a female patient - referred to as "K" in the judgment - under Dr Ong. No actual harm was caused to K by the doctors.
Dr Ong was in private practice while Dr Chan was a senior consultant in the department of psychiatry at the Singapore General Hospital at the time of their charges. Each claimed trial and was convicted on a single charge of improper conduct bringing disrepute to the medical profession under the Medical Registration Act.
A Disciplinary Tribunal imposed a suspension of eight months and five months on Dr Ong and Dr Chan respectively. Both doctors appealed against their convictions and sentences, while the SMC - the regulatory body governing the professional conduct of medical practitioners in Singapore - counter-appealed for longer suspensions for both doctors.
The Court of Three Judges - the highest disciplinary body that deals with doctors’ misconduct - heard the appeal in August this year but reserved judgment for a later date.
The SMC was represented by a team of lawyers from law firm Drew & Napier, while Dr Ong and Dr Chan were represented by counsels from K&L Gates Straits Law and Rajah & Tann respectively.
The doctors have been involved in a string of legal suits over past years after Dr Chan began dating a married woman, Ms Serene Tiong Sze Yin. Ms Tiong found explicit WhatsApp text messages between the two doctors, who discussed their sexual exploits with other women. She then filed a complaint with the SMC, which launched an investigation and disciplinary proceedings.
In its judgment, the Court of Three Judges - comprising of Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, Justices of the Court of Appeal Andrew Phang and Tay Yong Kwang - said that the Disciplinary Tribunal had not erred in finding both doctors guilty of improper conduct which brought disrepute to the medical profession.
K was a property agent who consulted and underwent a medical procedure by Dr Ong on Mar 19, 2018. She was discharged a day later. Some time within those two days, Dr Ong obtained her consent to share her contact details with Dr Chan, on the supposed basis that Dr Chan was looking to purchase a property.
Dr Ong then shared K's contact details with Dr Chan via WhatsApp conversation, in which he also told Dr Chan to "feel free to play your game".
In the messages, Dr Chan asked Dr Ong: "Can ask her for drinks instead?”, and Dr Ong replied "sure".
Dr Chan then texted "Me? Out of the blue ask her?”
Dr Ong made a crude suggestion before replying: "She’s expecting you re (sic) the property mah."
Dr Chan then stated: "I can’t decide to go thru the property route."
Dr Chan eventually did not meet K.
Based on the evidence, the judges were satisfied that Dr Ong had set up an introduction for K to be contacted by Dr Chan under the pretext of Dr Chan's feigned interest in a potential property transaction.
Both knew that property was not the real point of the introduction, which was to help Chan to pursue his own agenda of having sex with K.
During their appeals, both doctors raised similar arguments against their convictions, which was that the messages were for property investment purposes. They argued that there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that both doctors had colluded for the purposes of sexually exploiting K.
However, the Court of Three Judges rejected the argument after considering the context and interpretation of the messages in question.
"It is clear that this is a case that involves significant harm to public confidence in the medical profession. What Dr Ong did was an abuse of the trust and confidence that a patient had reposed in him for the potential sexual benefit of Dr Chan," said the judges.
"Further, it was not only disrespectful to K, but it also dehumanised her into an object for sexual gratification."
That no actual harm was caused to K missed the point, they added.
"Such an assertion is true only in the limited sense that she was not compelled to engage in sexual relations with Dr Chan under false pretences."
The judges said that it "cannot be denied that K suffered humiliation and indignity as a result of the doctors' actions". The fact that K was Dr Ong’s patient was aggravating, the judges said.
"If actual physical harm had been caused to K, the sanction called for would likely have been a striking out order," they said.
"In our judgment, the harm to public confidence cannot be understated. Patients are entitled to expect that their doctors will display a high standard of professional conduct in their dealings and interactions with them. This extends to how their doctors handle their personal information and their details even after the end of their interactions."
No mitigating weight should be given to Dr Ong or Dr Chan's clean record as a medical professional, the judges said. Instead, they found that the seniority of both doctors amplified the negative impact of their misconduct on public confidence in the medical profession.
They also found Dr Ong's claim of remorse was negated by his oral testimony where he maintained there was "nothing sexual" and no professional misconduct.
The judges found that longer sentences for both doctors were warranted. They determined that the Disciplinary Tribunal's orders that both doctors be censured and provide a written undertaking still stand.
The Court of Three Judges also noted that the medical profession is held in high esteem as its members have been "called to the work of healing".
Those who use the services of medical professionals must place their trust and confidence in them. They added that this is essential as it is necessary to have a frank and open exchange of information.
"But this engenders an expectation on the part of patients that they will be treated with dignity and respect, and that any information they provide will be used for proper purposes," they said.
"It is true that doctors have a life outside their profession. In general, they are not to be punished for moral failings in their personal lives. But what happens when the line between a doctor’s personal and professional life is obscured?"