Saturday, March 26, 2011

Inside Job

I have never taken a course in Economic.

And I would be the first to admit ignorance when it comes to the why's & wherefore's of today's global economic woes.

Watching this Academy Award-winning documentary has opened my eyes somewhat on what went wrong in the US. I am astonished at how this blatant abuse of power was allowed to go on and work its way insidiously into the American financial & banking system. I am also amazed at the millions & billions of dollars that ended up in the pockets of those who played their part in causing the 2008 economic downturn in the first place.

Shame on you.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

U Turn

Bring back medical fee guidelines

Concerns about over-charging highlight the need for a guide to

private doctors' fees

In the wake of the Susan Lim saga, it might be time to review the ban by the Competition Commission of Singapore (CCS) on medical fee guidelines.

Without going into the merits or demerits of the ongoing court case involving Dr Lim, many among the public have become concerned over the high charges being levied on medical services here in Singapore.

Singapore's reputation as a medical hub and its medical tourism business may also have been adversely hit by the court revelations and the testimony given by many in the medical field to overcharging by the profession.

In June last year, the CCS ruled that the guidelines were anti-competitive, on the grounds that price recommendations by trade and professional associations might harm consumers because they "distort independent pricing decisions" as there may be no incentive for cost-effectiveness or innovation.

The Guidelines on Fees (GOF) for services and procedures in the private sector were put in place in 1987 by the Singapore Medical Association (SMA) - which represents the majority of medical practitioners here - after complaints of overcharging for medical services by doctors who were more interested in squeezing their patients than in curing them.

The GOF is a set of recommendations on private doctors' professional fees, which includes fees for consultations, surgery, preparation of medical reports and court appearances.

But the CCS felt that the GOF was now redundant as other benchmarks had become available - namely that of government hospitals, which provide hospital care and medical services for 80 per cent of the population. And the CCS noted that since these restructured hospitals do not refer to the GOF when making pricing decisions, patients could use their charges as a basis for price comparison when going to private hospitals.

The CCS had also pointed out that the Ministry of Health (MOH) requires patient medical bills to be itemised and financial counselling be provided and that hospital bill sizes are made public on MOH's website.

The commission urged the SMA to "work with MOH and hospitals to further improve the delivery of pricing information ... so as to allow patients to make more informed choices".

"In general, price recommendations by trade or professional associations are harmful to competition because they create focal points for prices to converge, restrict independent pricing decisions and signal to market players what their competitors are likely to charge," the CCS said. "This is a common position adopted by many competition agencies in the world, even for the medical sector."

But now, in response to a recent article in Today, the CCS has suggested that the SMA could provide information on actual pricing.

"In general, CCS recognises that information on actual pricing, and transparency in the reporting of prices actually charged in the market, are useful for consumers to make informed choices in their purchases of goods or services. CCS, therefore, supports the publication of historical price information to help consumers.

"However, this is very different from issuing price guidelines, which by their very definition, are intended to influence what prices should be set rather than merely providing historical price data," the CCS said in its letter.

Although the SMA had voluntarily scrapped its pricing guidelines in 2007, in October 2008, it wrote to the Ministry of Trade and Industry to request that the GOF be excluded from Section 34 of the Competition Act. After consulting with MOH, the ministry declined the request last year.

But it may be time now for the SMA to restore the public's faith in the medical services by bringing back guidelines, perhaps with the proviso that these are only guidelines and not mandatory charges binding all doctors.

These guidelines could provide a range, as suggested by the CCS, rather than a specific price that those in the medical services could charge. However, they should avoid the extremes which could give a distorted picture and could include overcharging by the unscrupulous.

The guidelines are a useful frame of reference: Patients should not be asked to buy a pig in the poke - a service they do not know the true value of. Dying patients may not be in the proper frame of mind to make the right judgement call.

And foreigners could use a guide to the range of charges they can expect in Singapore, enabling them to compare the expense with that of other medical hubs.

Perhaps private clinics should be requested to post their range of fees, either at their premises or on their websites, so that it would be possible for patients to shop around, like in the case of restaurants. Some doctors might feel it beneath their dignity to post their service and price menus - but then, being unscrupulous is even worse.

More importantly, such a move would not be anti-competition.

I guess it takes sensational headlines to make the CCS wake up to what the original price guidelines were supposed to do for patients. Call it "historical price data" or call it guidelines. It's semantics, really. What they have suggested was really what the guidelines were meant to do in the first place.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Light Bulb moment

Finally, a bright spark.

(Letter to the editor, Straits Times Forum, March 19)

Ban ineffective screening tests

I REFER to the reply from the Ministry of Health ("Why Medisave can't be used

for all screening tests"; Thursday) to Mr Arthur Lim's letter ("Allow use of

Medisave for more screening tests"; Monday). In the name of medical ethics,

the Ministry of Health should perhaps consider a ban on tests that are of

questionable effectiveness when used as screening tools.

Going by the phenomenal growth of some medical centres, and the increasing

complexity of some packages they offer, medical providers must be doing

a roaring business.

With some packages costing as much as $9,000, could it be that a large

proportion of tests in the packages are probably not recommended as screening

tools? And if they are, why are they even allowed to be there? Shouldn't

the public be protected from such practices?

(Addendum: I am not advocating banning these tests, some of which are useful

for patients recovering from cancer, to check for recurrences. I just hope that

this is a wake up call for both patients and doctors - patients to start asking

intelligent questions about the tests & procedures which they allow themselves

to be subjected to; and doctors to stop pushing some of these health screening

packages to laymen who may have the false impression that these tests magically

detect early cancer.

Wake up, people.)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Feeling Small

Watching the horrific images of homes and cars and buses and ships being swept away so effortlessly by the tsunami in Japan is sobering indeed.

Mother Nature is a force that humankind cannot contend with. We are like little ants in the greater scheme of things. One big step whether in the form of an earthquake or a tidal wave is all it takes to wipe us out.

And to make things worse, we put in place potentially dangerous things like nuclear reactors in one of the most earthquake-y countries in the world and we have a disaster in the making, this time with regional, if not global implications.

We live within stone's throw (relatively speaking) of Japan. If there is going to be a nuclear explosion or meltdown, or whatever it is called that results in the spread of radioactive material, we can, potentially, be in harms' way.

I am hoping for the best.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Why Aren't Doctors Allowed to Care About Money?

Read this.

And this.

These two articles articulate very well the reality that has to be faced by all.

No, not all doctors are altruistic, nor should they be. Neither should they be ashamed of wanting to be rewarded financially for the work they do, same as anybody else, be they a banker, or engineer or waiter or plumber or bus driver.

Do not put us on pedestals and think that we are noble creatures who would work for less than what we are worth. We don't deserve to be on that pedestal. We do what we do because it's our job. And we should be paid for doing that job. We are not God. We have families to support, dreams to aspire to (some more expensive than others), children to educate.

We are human, after all.