The curious case of Dr Lee
Updated: Apr 27, 2019
Earlier this month, the Tasmanian Health Practitioners Tribunal found that Dr Christopher Kwan Chen Lee was guilty of professional misconduct with respect to social media posts he had authored between 2016 and 2018.
The Tribunal's decision is available here: http://www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/viewdoc/au/cases/tas/TASHPT/2019/3.html
There has been a lot of discussion online about Dr Lee's conduct, and whether the Tribunal's decision was an appropriate one.
Dr Lee did not contest the allegations, and admitted that he was the author of the posts in question (quoted in the decision). There can be no doubt that those posts are reprehensible and inappropriate for a professional to have made (or any person, for that matter).
Dr Lee offered in explanation that he was "relatively young and inexperienced" and that he did not appreciate that posting the comments he did on a Singaporean forum would have the impact on his registration that it did. He also indicated that the views expressed in those posts had never impacted on patient care; his supervisor confirmed that he had not observed Dr Lee acting in a manner that caused him concern.
The Tribunal reprimanded Dr Lee, suspended Dr Lee for six weeks, and imposed conditions on his registration regarding his communication and use of social media.
A period of suspension indicates that the Tribunal considered that Dr Lee's conduct was extremely poor. Suspensions are not typically given out lightly. However, the Tribunal stopped short of cancelling Dr Lee's registration. In doing so, the Tribunal must have found that Dr Lee remained a fit and proper person - if it had not, it was obliged to cancel his registration.
The question therefore becomes - at what point can someone's utterances outside of their profession render them unsafe to continue to practice? It would be unrealistic to expect that Dr Lee does not believe - at least in some way - the things that he said. However, there are plenty of practitioners who may hold reprehensible views. Most will not utter them in a public place. What should be done with them? How would we identify them?
Are the views that Dr Lee espoused enough to say that he should not practise as a medical practitioner? If they are - as it is unlikely that Dr Lee would change those views any time soon, he would effectively be prevented from practising as a medical practitioner, perhaps for life.
Some would say that such a punishment would be fitting. However, this is the issue that the Tribunal would have had to grapple with - Dr Lee's performance as a practitioner has not, in any way, reflected his posts on social media. It appears that the Tribunal has therefore decided to give the benefit of the doubt to Dr Lee.
The question of whether we require practitioners to be good people - both inside and outside their profession - is a vexed one. Serious criminal conduct is one thing, but hateful utterances on public forums may be another. At a certain point, to take action against someone based on their beliefs almost becomes akin to being the "thought police" - but once those beliefs are aired, as Dr Lee's were, then the case for taking action (including long-term action) becomes much stronger.
As a matter of law, it is arguable whether or not the Tribunal should have been harsher, or less harsh, but on the whole, the Tribunal was bound to make the decision it did. The decision is in line with previous authorities. If the community expectation is that the Tribunal should have acted differently, then it is up to the Medical Board of Australia, and the legislature, to change Codes, policies, guidelines and laws to better reflect community expectations.