TRADITIONAL Chinese medicine (TCM) physicians who flout the rules by claiming to be specialist doctors are to be investigated by the Ministry of Health (MOH). Unlike doctors in Western medicine, there is no authority in Singapore that certifies TCM physicians as specialists. Since 2001, TCM practitioners have had to be licensed with the MOH, a move aimed at improving their care. The rules say they can call themselves only physicians or acupuncturists.
Yet this has not stopped some from touting themselves as specialists – putting up signs outside their clinics or charging higher fees. Consultation with a TCM physician plus medication typically costs between $50 and $300. Those who claim to be specialists can charge up to $1,000. Prescriptions of herbs often account for the bulk of the bills.
About 20 patients have complained to the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) about overcharging and high-pressure sales tactics in the last three years. Last week, the TCM Practitioners Board, which regulates the industry, issued a circular warning TCM practitioners not to label themselves as specialists. Yesterday, Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan said such claims were “misleading” and “unethical”.
He added that the ministry will launch an investigation into any TCM practitioners about whom it receives calls or complaints. “Registration of TCM doctors and Western doctors is different,” he said. “It is more stringent for Western doctors partly because they have a longer history. “TCM is still developing so we still need the cooperation of patients and consumers. (But) we are making it quite clear that TCM does not have a specialists register. So anyone claiming to be one is misleading the patient.”
The minister, speaking on the sidelines of a community event in Sembawang, also took issue with those raising fees on the back of misleading qualifications. Mr Khaw, MP for Sembawang GRC, said: “It has always been the worry that if you call yourself a specialist, you are expected to charge a higher price compared to a non-specialist.” He advised consumers being charged higher prices: “Let us know, let the TCM board know and they will investigate.”
Case executive director Seah Seng Choon said the lack of a specialists registry makes it difficult for consumers to tell whether a TCM practitioner is qualified. He added that it may be time for the authorities to put clear rules in place. Asked if it was time for a specialists register for TCM practitioners, Mr Khaw said this could happen in future but it will take time before the industry can reach a standard of professionalism similar to that of Western doctors here.
One TCM physician, Ms Esther Gow, lists on her clinic’s website success stories in treating cancer patients. When asked if she offered specialist treatment, she said: “I do not just major in one area, but can help in most problems.” Dr Swee Yong Peng, who is both a TCM practitioner and a Western doctor, said some practitioners may feel that they are specialists because they had trained overseas for several years and treated patients with chronic illnesses. Dr Swee, a TCM Practitioners Board committee member, said others felt it was unfair that they were subject to restrictions when GPs have flexibility in how they charge patients. “What matters is the patient is made aware of the price up front,” he said.
But tweaking the pricing system is not in the pipeline, said Mr Khaw yesterday. “We never control prices,” he said. “That freedom is good for consumers, and we do not want to deviate from that.”