High Court overturns doctor's conviction over insufficient medical leave given to worker

File photo of a doctor: Getty Images

SINGAPORE — A hand surgeon who was suspended from practice for six months by a disciplinary tribunal over two charges of professional misconduct had his conviction set aside by the High Court.

Dr Looi Kok Poh was previously found guilty by a tribunal convened by the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) of failing to give sufficient medical leave to a foreign worker after the latter sustained a fingertip injury due to an industrial accident.

On Monday (27 May), a panel of three court judges - Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and Appeal Judges Judith Prakash and Tay Yong Kwang - said that the tribunal had failed to establish that Dr Looi had departed from the applicable standard of conduct in the case.

“In particular, we are of the view that the tribunal’s finding on the applicable standard of conduct from which Dr Looi departed... was unsafe, unreasonable and contrary to the evidence,” said Judge of Appeal Prakash.

“On the evidence before us, it could not be said that Dr Looi had departed from the applicable standard of conduct among members of the medical profession of good standing and repute.”

The judges found no basis that Dr Looi had been seriously negligent, dismissing the SMC's appeal against the sentence. It also set aside all orders that the tribunal had made against Dr Looi.

In particular, the judges noted that after examining the worker, Vadamodulu Tata Rao, Dr Looi had decided that light duties were medically appropriate as there were adequate conditions for the patient’s rest and rehabilitation at work. Dr Looi had discussed the availability of light duties with the patient and his accompanying safety officer at a review, they added.

Background of the case

Vadamodulu, who worked as a welder in a shipyard, was on duty on 7 August 2011 when a steel plate fell on his right hand. The 32-year-old Indian national sustained a crush injury to the fingertip of his right middle finger.

Dr Looi operated on Vadamodulu for the first of his two-stage procedure.

After the surgery, Vadamodulu was hospitalised at West Point Surgery Centre for one night. Dr Looi left notes for West Point to discharge Vadamodulu the next day with one day of medical leave and seven days of light duties.

However, Vadamodulu reported feeling pain that night and was seen by another doctor who discharged him with a medical certificate granting him two days' medical leave, which ended on that day.

When Vadamodulu returned for a review on 12 August, Dr Looi gave him light duty for 11 days and no medical leave until the next review on 22 August.

On 20 August, Vadamodulu visited the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) complaining of pain over the stitched area on his finger. He was given medical leave until 22 August.

On 22 August, Dr Looi issued one week of medical leave to the patient and scheduled him for the second stage of the procedure. The patient skipped the appointment and underwent surgery at the SGH.

Earlier ruling

The tribunal ruled that Dr Looi had not clinically assessed Vadamodulu’s suitability for light duties. Dr Looi had decided almost immediately after the first surgery on the type and amount of leave without considering the patient’s pain score on the night of the surgery, the tribunal said.

Dr Looi had intentionally and deliberately departed from his duty to assess that the conditions for Vadamodulu’s rest and rehabilitation were sufficient. In particular, he did not properly establish the existence and nature of light duty arrangements, the tribunal ruled.

The SMC had asked for 18 months’ suspension for each charge, while Dr Looi sought a fine of $20,000 to $30,000. The tribunal imposed a six-month suspension on Dr Looi after deciding that a fine would not be sufficient.

Dr Looi filed an appeal against his conviction and sentence while the SMC appealed for a harsher sentence.