WHEN there is a death in the family and an undertaker is called in, it is quite likely that a doctor will turn up in tow, as part of a “package deal”.
General practitioners (GPs) pocket up to S$250 (RM525) each time they sign a Certificate of Cause of Death, allowing families to get on with funeral rites and avoid the hassle of having the body examined at a mortuary.
While there is nothing illegal in GPs certifying the cause of death when a person dies of natural causes, doctors could find themselves in trouble with the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) if they are found to be working in tandem with funeral parlours or have wrongly certified the cause of a death.
So far, one doctor has been censured by the council, which has said that it “would not hesitate to mete out harsher sentences” if it sees the doctor-undertaker liaison assume larger dimensions.
The council, the watchdog of the medical profession here, can fine, suspend or strike a doctor off the medical rolls.
The doctor-undertaker nexus came under scrutiny in a recent case involving a GP, Dr Glenn Siew, who had been practising for more than 15 years and wrongly certified three deaths.
The council alleged that he had been working with an undertaker, but stopped short of taking him to task for it because it could not find any conclusive evidence. However it warned him to “desist from any association” which might “compromise professional integrity”.
A check of 40 undertakers found that 30 of them offered the services of a doctor to help certify the cause of death for S$250 (RM525).
Association of Funeral Directors president Philip Tan said doctor-undertaker tie-ups were common because the 50 or so undertakers here competed for about 40 funerals a day, adding that he saw nothing wrong with doctors and funeral parlours working together.
A GP who ran his own clinic in Joo Chiat said he handled about seven referrals a month from undertakers.
He explained that he was only helping to “put the family's mind at ease so they could concentrate on the rest of the funeral rites”.
The S$250 (RM525) was “just a little token” to cover the consultation fee and travelling expenses, he said. But the doctor did accept that working with undertakers could be deemed unprofessional.
Forensic experts and lawyers warned that such doctors could end up in more serious trouble than a censure from the SMC. In the past two years, at least two GPs had been questioned by the State Coroner for wrongly certifying the cause of death of six elderly patients.
Autopsies could not be carried out to find the real cause of death because the bodies had been cremated, and the coroner had to record open verdicts in all six cases.
Centre for Forensic Medicine director Dr Paul Chui felt that it was not possible for a doctor to certify the cause of death of a person he had never treated.
“The doctor would need to satisfy himself that the death is not a reportable death,” said Dr Chui.
Under the law, only unnatural, sudden, violent or accidental deaths had to be reported to the coroner for a post-mortem. Last year, about a fifth of the 16,000 deaths here were reported to the coroner.
If a doctor failed to do so, he could be fined up to S$1,000 (RM2,100) or jailed up to a year, or both for making a false statement in the certificate.
Even worse, he could be found guilty of abetting a crime if the death was the result of foul play. – The Straits Times/Asia News Network
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