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HC Surgical doctor loses defamation suit over claims of collusion for sex with patients

Dr Ong Dr Chan.jpg
The defendant suspected that surgeon Dr Julian Ong (left) and psychiatrist Dr Chan Herng Nieng had used their position as doctors to source for patients to have sex with.

JULIAN Ong Kian Peng has lost his defamation lawsuit against a woman who told other doctors that he and another specialist were taking advantage of "vulnerable" female patients for sexual activities with them.

Dr Ong, whose private practice is a 70 per cent-owned subsidiary of Catalist-listed HC Surgical Specialists, filed the lawsuit in July 2018. The surgeon said the woman’s claims had injured his reputation and caused him distress, embarrassment and hurt to his feelings.

District Judge Lynette Yap on April 3 dismissed Dr Ong’s action with costs, finding that the defendant’s claims were justified, according to court documents seen by The Business Times (BT).

Dr Ong, who runs Julian Ong Endoscopy & Surgery at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, is solely responsible for the costs in connection with the lawsuit. BT understands he has commenced appeal proceedings.

HC Surgical acquired a 51 per cent interest in the endoscopy clinic for S$2.2 million in February 2017, before raising its stake in October 2019 by another 19 per cent for S$3.8 million. Last September, HC Surgical announced plans to buy the remaining 30 per cent stake in the clinic by Oct 31, 2021.

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Dr Ong is currently employed by the group as a specialist surgeon with oversight over his practice.

In a bourse filing on Sunday, the group said that with immediate effect Dr Ong must, prior to any consultation, inform all patients of the matters alluded to in the suit. Following that, he must also obtain the consent of each patient to act as their physician, save for any emergency consultation. (see amendment note)

HC Surgical had on Saturday issued an earlier filing saying it "does not approve of the matters alluded to" in the defamation lawsuit.

TIMELINE

The defendant was a patient of the other doctor, Chan Herng Nieng, who was then a senior consultant psychiatrist at Singapore General Hospital (SGH). Dr Chan is now in private practice, and does not work in the HC Surgical group.

The defendant and Dr Chan were also having an extramarital affair at the time. In April 2018, she accessed Dr Chan’s phone and took photos of offensive WhatsApp exchanges between him and Dr Ong, according to the court documents seen by BT.

Their relationship ended in May 2018. A month later, the defendant filed a complaint against the two men with the Singapore Medical Council (SMC).

She also emailed a copy of the SMC complaint to "a large number" of doctors – who were mostly Dr Chan’s colleagues, department heads and management at SGH, as well as two doctors in private practice, court documents stated.

JUDGE'S DECISION

In the defamation suit, the main charge that the defendant needed to justify was that Dr Ong and Dr Chan had colluded to take advantage of "vulnerable female patients", that she suspected the duo used their position as doctors to source for patients to have sex with, and they exchanged information about these women.

The defendant had made these claims in her SMC complaint that was later forwarded to the other doctors.

Justice Yap found the main charge to be substantially true.

One reason for this is that Dr Ong had sought to have sex with the defendant, who was still Dr Chan’s "de facto" patient, the judge said. Dr Chan was prescribing medication to treat the defendant’s anxiety even though they were concurrently in a personal relationship.

Whether Dr Ong ultimately succeed in having sex with the defendant does not detract from the substance of the main charge, Justice Yap added.

In addition, the WhatsApp messages between both doctors "clearly" showed they were colluding to take advantage of a female patient, Justice Yap said. Dr Ong had forwarded that patient’s contact details to Dr Chan, telling him to "feel free to play your game" and made a reference to anal sex with her.

The two men also introduced women to each other for sexual activities, court documents show. On one occasion, Dr Ong told Dr Chan to step up efforts to connect him with more women.

'VULNERABLE' PATIENTS

Justice Yap rejected the argument by Dr Ong’s lawyer that there was no proof the patients whom both doctors sought to have sex with were "vulnerable".

"The relationship between doctor and patient is necessarily one of trust," she said.

In particular, Dr Chan’s practice involves patients with mental health issues where a high level of trust between doctor and patient is required.

"Any doctor who seeks to have sex with his patient or pass a patient to another doctor to have sex with that patient, is interacting with a vulnerable person vis-a-vis that doctor," the judge emphasised.

Meanwhile, The Straits Times (ST) reported that the defendant last heard from the SMC on Dec 5, 2019 about her complaint. The SMC told the woman that its complaints committee is at the inquiry's final stage and will inform her of the outcome in due course, according to ST.

HC Surgical on Saturday said its board will await the decision of the complaints committee, before it determines whether any further action is required. The facts of the matter presented in the suit relates only to the defamation action, the company added.

In its Sunday filing, HC Surgical noted that it "recognises the gravity of the matters alluded to in the suit, while understanding the importance for due process to run its course, pending the findings of the SMC's complaints committee".

"The board would like to stress that it is committed to maintaining high levels of professionalism in the services it provides," the filing on Sunday stated.

The board reiterated that its doctors have been reminded of their obligations and to maintain a professional code of conduct.

In response to BT’s queries, HC Surgical chief executive officer Heah Sieu Min on Saturday said it is "too preliminary" at the moment to determine whether the lawsuit’s outcome will create any material uncertainty with respect to group revenue and profits.

However, a majority of businesses in Singapore are in general affected by the Covid-19 situation, especially after the latest "circuit-breaker" measures, which may in turn affect the group, Dr Heah told BT.

Shares of HC Surgical gained S$0.02 or 5.6 per cent to close at S$0.38 on Thursday.

With additional reporting by Marissa Lee

Amendment note: An earlier version of this article stated that all of HC Surgical's specialist doctors must inform patients of the matters alluded to in the suit, prior to any consultation. This requirement actually only applies to Dr Ong, not the other doctors in the group.

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