My friend – let’s call him C, had a problem. Actually it’s not really his problem, but his teenage daughter got pregnant – which kind of made it his predicament since he is a highly respected person with a solid reputation in his community. C’s daughter ended up flying off to a European country for an abortion cum holiday before returning to Singapore to attend school. The reason C took the trouble to do that had something to do with this piece of news.
The finer details are still being finalised, but the new Healthcare Services Bill is intended to better “safeguard the safety and well-being of patients” in the changing healthcare environment while enabling the development of new and innovative services that benefit patients. It is also supposed to strengthen governance and regulatory clarity for better continuity of care to patients. It is further assumed that HCS Bill – and the National Electronic Health Record (NEHR) that it mandates – address wider issues of “patient welfare”.
The obvious advantage of this system is that inaccurate or incomplete medical history will be a thing of the past. An unconscious patient brought into A&E will have all his drug allergies and current medical condition clearly displayed for the convenience of the attending physician – assuming he is correctly identified. The core data accessible to future attending physicians include 1) Patient Profile; 2) Events; 3) Diagnosis; 4) Operating Theatre Notes/Procedures/Treatments; 5) Discharge Summary; 6) Medications; 7) Laboratory Reports; 8) Radiology Reports; 9) Immunisation; and 10) Allergies.
The scheme will be implemented in 3 phases. By December 2020, all private medical and dental clinics must comply. Below are some answers to FAQ provided by MOH.
1. Who will be able to access my health records?
Only doctors who are caring for you will be able to access your records.
2. What kind of health information will be captured in the NEHR?
It will include your diagnosis, medications, allergies, and vaccination records. In addition, the system will capture operating theatre notes and procedures, as well as laboratory and radiology reports. It will not, however, include doctors’ personal case notes of each consultation. Yes, every liposuction and fat transfer to the butt that you had will be made known to the doctor giving you a flu shot in the arm.
3. Can my insurance company or employer look up my records through the company doctors?
If anyone wants to look up your records for purposes other than caring for your health, they will have to get explicit consent from you.
4. What if I don’t want anybody to look up my health records?
You can opt out of the NEHR. When you do so, your medical records will still be uploaded into the system, although doctors or other healthcare professionals will not be able to access them. The authorities have said that this will not change for now, although they are open to feedback on the issue.
5. Will all my old health records be uploaded into the NEHR system?
No, there will be no backdating of old health records. And of course, for some procedures, you don’t need to see the medical records to know that they have been performed.
6. What cybersecurity measures will be taken to make sure that all this sensitive information will be protected?
The authorities have said they will take measures similar to what the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore uses to protect its tax database from hackers and other cybersecurity threats.
My friend C has many friends and colleagues who are doctors. We may assume that every one of them is professional in his/her approach, but we also happen to be one of the most judgemental societies in the world. Will C’s friends and colleagues not look at C’s daughter differently if they know that she had an abortion in her teens? Just look at the way we dis-incentivise single parenthood. I would think that “Victorian” is already a very kind word to use for the total lack of graciousness, compassion and flexibility in granting a faultless child his citizenship.
I seriously think that we need to fix such social stigmas and narrow-mindedness before we even think of implementing something as progressive as the NEHR. But given all the “safeguards” mentioned, does C have any reason to worry that the record of his teenage daughter’s abortion is going to follow her for life, visible to every future doctor that she sees? Maybe not, but would you take the risk if you were in C’s shoes? Wouldn’t it be safer to be totally off the record here? What all this point to, besides better continuity of care to patients as purported, is a boost to outbound medical tourism for procedures ranging from abortion to plastic surgery or treatment for psychiatric conditions and sexually transmitted diseases. The Bill works perfectly for a bunch of hogs, but fails miserably to take human weaknesses and social stigmas into consideration.
There is another issue. The elephant in the room, is that doctors will have to spend a good amount of money just plugging into the NEHR. Clinics whose patients don’t mind the tattered cushions in the waiting area and mouldy walls in the toilet must now fork out money for a business broadband account. It’s no longer optional.
Entering data also takes up time. All this will add to the administrative workload of doctors who are supposed to be clinicians. 30-year-old clinics which have not gone digital estimate that they need to fork out almost $17,000 for software/hardware and put in many hours of familiarisation trials to get started. All this will inevitably translate into higher medical costs. Another boost for outbound medical tourism.
Meanwhile, the policymakers who sit in trendy offices and hold trendy meetings (courtesy of our compliant taxpayers) go about their daily chore of generating more and more work for people whose response can only fall between voluntary acceptance or involuntary compliance.
Dental Phobia by Chan Joon Yee