NMP who received death threat as junior doctor calls for better protection for healthcare workers

NMP Tan Yia Swam highlighted the underreporting of such incidents.

Matthias Ang | March 09, 2022, 06:42 PM

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Nominated Member of Parliament Tan Yia Swam has called for better protection for healthcare workers amidst a rise in the abuse and harassment of healthcare workers in Singapore.

Tan said that while the Covid-19 pandemic has placed "immense" social pressures on everyone, being stressed should not be an excuse to be abusive towards healthcare workers.

She added:

"Healthcare professionals place patients at the heart of all we do and service before self. But when it comes to abuse, it becomes a really difficult thing to express how one feels abuse without feeling guilty or being derelict in our duty.

If healthcare workers are given the training to recognise it and the organisational support to be able to call out abusive and manipulative behaviours from patients or their families, it will give us all more protection, peace of mind and the strength to keep on doing what we love best."

Received a death threat at one point as a junior doctor

Tan also cited two incidents of abuse.

In the first incident, the children of a patient discharged from surgery demanded that ward staff arrange for daily food delivery to the patient's home, as the children themselves were too busy to do so.

Tan said the children also told the staff, "If anything should happen, it will be your fault."

As for the second incident, Tan said this was a death threat she received from the son of a patient after informing him that his father's operation had to be postponed a second time due to an unexpected fever.

"The son said, 'You are lucky I am not there, otherwise I will hang you, every single one of you,'" she highlighted.

Underreporting by healthcare workers is an issue

Tan then added that part of the problem is underreporting.

"I am uncertain that many health care workers have their own stories of abuse to share. Our professionalism mostly keeps us in check and stops us from posting on social media," she said.

She noted that healthcare professionals in public health care institutions are categorised as public service workers under the Protection from Harassment Act.

However, many healthcare workers refrain from making a police report if they feel that the abuse is a once-off event or excuse such behaviour on the grounds that the patient is either sick or their families are worried.

Such workers might also be unable to recognise abusive behaviour from patients but might still feel drained and guilty after meeting such families.

They may also feel afraid to speak up as "patients hold the power" in such a situation.

"A complaint to senior management or their (the patients') MP may bring in undue social pressure to give in to unreasonable demands. For doctor and SMC (Singapore Medical Council) complaints, it may take months or years to resolve. The media may splash the doctor's name across the main page and his or her reputation is ruined, even if found to be innocent."

Here, Tan put forth the following proposal in light of the lack of "immediate remedies" under the Protection from Harassment Act.

"There must be zero tolerance of abuse on many different fronts. At the healthcare workers' level, one should have the professional option to terminate the patient-carer relationship after an encounter of abuse, with transfer of care to another provider. At the institution level, there need to be clear protocols for reporting and management of abuse cases, such as making a police report, making CCTV evidence available and recalling of witnesses."

Koh Poh Koon: Workgroup will look into harassment of healthcare workers

Senior Minister of State for Health Koh Poh Koon said there is a need to recognise the abuse of healthcare workers and institute safe reporting systems and clear penalties for offending parties.

The end of 2021 saw around 1,500 such cases of abuse, up from 1,080 in 2018, he noted.

The real number may also be far higher, he said, as many healthcare workers exercise empathy and therefore do not always take a legalistic approach and escalate every incident.

Koh also noted that under POHA, public health care workers are accorded enhanced protections under section six if abused or harassed for carrying out their duties.

He also said healthcare workers should have the assurance that the employers and the healthcare system "have their back".

In adding that such abuse will not be tolerated, Koh highlighted that the Ministry of Health (MOH) would be establishing a tripartite workgroup for preventing the harassment of healthcare workers in the public, private and community healthcare sectors.

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Top collage left screenshot via CNA, right photo via Singhealth Facebook