Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Dollars & Sense


Oh sorry…*wiping tears of laughter of face*…

That was my response to the question posed to the Minister (highlighted below) taken from this article from channelnewsasia (emphasis mine):

Health Ministry to monitor fees charged by private doctors
By Hasnita A Majid, Channel NewsAsia Posted: 04 April 2007 0011 hrs

Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan says his Ministry will monitor the charges levied by doctors on patients.

And it will gather information from private clinics and publish the data, like what it has done for hospital bill sizes and some clinical procedures.

This is possible as the Ministry is already gathering data from the Chronic Management Programme, where half of all GPs here are on board.

Mr Khaw says doctors should also display their fees as required under the Private Hospitals and Medical Clinics Act and Regulations, so patients know how much they have to pay before they decide to seek treatment.

He was responding to questions on what the Health Ministry will do to ensure doctors do not overcharge their patients, following the withdrawal of the Guideline on Fees by the Singapore Medical Association (SMA).

"Singaporeans are educated consumers, so they should demand all those. If you go to a clinic and find those things are missing, then I think vote with your feet, go to another clinic which does so. Why should you be blindly going to that clinic? So I think providers will react if consumers are demanding and discerning. And I think part of public education is to help them, that they have a right as a consumer to know how much the bill will be and so on." Mr Khaw said. - CNA/yy

Speaking from the POV of a GP, I had to laugh. Why? Because the problem with consultation fees in the GP sector (at least in recent history) is undercharging & not overcharging. And patients do not appreciate that. I have had a patient complain about a $5 co-payment under his company’s medical benefit scheme – Five Freaking Dollars. I don’t believe that patients even look at the GOF tents that are displayed in clinics.

On a more serious note, I see a few possibilities happening with the withdrawal of the GOF:

a) Patients realize that they need to be savvier about their healthcare, and in looking at fees charged by different doctors, learn to question why one doc may charge more than the other, and learn that quality of care is just as important as cost. A good thing, as it encourages transparency, & improved communication between patient & doctor, something that is very lacking at the moment.
b) And because they start to question, they hopefully learn that doctoring is not something as simple as “Say ‘Ah’” & “Take an aspirin and call me in the morning.” Perhaps patients may start to realize that they have “had it good” all this time.
c) With the MOH publishing data about GP bills, healthcare becomes nothing more than a consumer product, with the customers looking only for the most reasonably priced. A price war then starts among the already suffering GP’s, leading to more undercutting & further diminishing morale among them.

In a perfect world, most of us would hope that (a) & (b) become reality. For a skeptic like me, I think in Singapore, (c) is the most probable outcome.

Just take a look at this article from Today Online (again, emphasis mine):

Medical association says it had 'no choice' ; MOH to publish fee schedule online


DESPITE the weighty ramifications of freeing up private doctors to set their own fees, few expected the Singapore Medical Association (SMA) to take that step so soon.
So the suddenness of the decision to withdraw its guideline of fees, taken at Sunday's annual general meeting after a year of bandying the possibility about, caught patients — and even some doctors and health officials — off-guard.
Yesterday, Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan expressed surprise that the SMA's fee guide, started 20 years ago to make transparent private medical charges, should be seen by lawyers as contravening the year-old Competition Act. The good news is that his ministry is now planning to publish doctors' fees online to help patients make comparisons.
But, as SMA president Wong Chiang Yin emphasised to this newspaper several times yesterday, the move to axe the guideline was made with "great reluctance". The SMA felt it had "no choice" in the matter.
It was, in effect, a choice of scrap the guideline now — or cough up $200,000 for a decision from the Competition Commission of Singapore that might simply lead to the same result.
Since the Competition Act was enacted last year, the SMA's consultations with its in-house legal counsel had indicated that the guideline was "probably" illegal.
But to get a definitive answer from the Competition Commission, the SMA would have had to foot a hefty bill, said Dr Wong.
Getting guidance alone from the Competition Commission to file paperwork would have cost $20,000, while getting a decision would have cost the non-profit organisation $30,000. In addition, the SMA would have had to cough up some $150,000 in legal fees.
"The penalty (for contravention of the Act) is 10 per cent of turnover for every year of infringement. That's quite a lot," said Dr Wong, who had written to the Competition Commission and requested to meet with them.
The commission did not take up the offer, he said, but merely responded to his four-page letter, noting that the SMA had "received legal advice that the guideline of fees may contravene Section 34(2)(a) of the Competition Act".
Said Dr Wong: "As the penalties are accrued on a daily basis, we had no choice but to withdraw the guideline of fees."
But the move was not taken lightly as it has "huge" ramifications on Singaporeans who typically see a doctor five to six times a year, said Dr Cheong Yeh Woei, first vice-president of the SMA.
Ripples will be felt in a wide range of medical services, such as surgical operations, consultations by specialists and doctors, emergency situations and house calls, as well as fees for court attendance and the retrieval of medical reports.
Apart from obvious concerns about overcharging, there is even the issue of undercutting, said Dr Cheong. Medical insurance claims may also be affected.
Dr Cheong said the association is telling members not to vary fees, keeping in mind that the Goods and Services Tax is also set to rise. Doctors and private medical groups this newspaper spoke to agreed that fees would not rise in the short term.
According to Mr Khaw, the Health Ministry intends to publish fee schedules online "before the end of this year", after it collates data on average bill sizes for general practitioners.
Patients will have to play their part — such as being aware if they are being "over-serviced" and ensuring that private clinics display their fees as required.
"If you go to a clinic and find those things are missing, then vote with your feet. Go to another clinic. Providers will react if consumers are demanding and discerning," he said.
One problem, however, is that there is now no clear recourse for victims of overcharging — under the guideline, they could complain to the SMA. The Consumer's Association of Singapore, or Case, might have to "pick up the slack", said Dr Cheong, "but they have not sufficient know-how".
Despite the medical community's misgivings, the Competition Commission said it welcomed the SMA's move. "This would permit greater flexibility for fees to be set by the medical practitioners in line with their business costs. Such a move is more in line with today's circumstances," it said.
"Consumers would therefore benefit from the greater transparency and competition of prices."
But GPs like Dr Clarence Yeo felt a reference was needed. Ultimately, he said, "we mustn't forget that healthcare is a basic necessity. The basic economics of things shouldn't be extrapolated to healthcare".
Look at what the rep from The Competition Commission (whose existence I was not aware of till I read the article this morning) says in the article above (highlighted). Greater transparency is great, but I wonder if the patients (note that I use the word patients & not consumers) would bother to find out more about their treatment and why it costs whatever the amount may be? Or would they just go to Dr A because he charges $5 less than Dr B?

After all, consulting a doctor IS different from going to the supermarket to buy groceries. At least, it should be anyway.

(Look at angrydoc, Dr Oz & Dr Huang's blogs for more comments on this issue).


Anonymous said...

The problem is not transparency. The biggest problem with competition is that the GPs are competing with the polyclincs. This kind of competition is anti competitive.

aliendoc said...

Agree that the problem includes competition with the polyclinics. And I think MOH is aware of it too...but whether they are going to do anything about it is anyone's guess.