May 12, 2009
Dr Discount tends to the heartlands
Toa Payoh clinic charging needy even less in downturn
By Elizabeth Soh
PATIENTS pack the Block 203 Toa Payoh North Clinic and Surgery from the moment it opens its doors at 8.30am and closes them at 9pm.
It is often standing-room only because its resident physician, Dr Koh Sek Khoon, 48, has been charging far less than his counterparts since he set up his practice 18 years ago.
During this downturn, he is handing out even steeper discounts.
'Times are tough, so I don't mind charging less, if only to help tide patients over,' says Dr Koh. 'Sometimes, I don't charge for kids with coughs and colds because they fall sick so often it can be a burden for the parents.'
The doctor has disregarded the Singapore Medical Association's fee guidelines from the time they were introduced in 1987 to their withdrawal in 2007. They stipulated that a simple short consultation lasting about 10 minutes should cost $20 to $30.
Dr Koh's consultation fees start at $8, and rarely exceed $10. A poll of five patients leaving his clinic showed they typically paid less than $20 - inclusive of medication.
He says his experience over the years helps him identify those experiencing hardship. For the past six months, he has also been investing more time talking to patients depressed by the recession.
Patient C.K. Yeo, 65, who recently lost his job as a canteen cleaner, emerged with a bill of $15 for consultation and medication for his flu, which is $10 less than what he would pay elsewhere. 'He knows I have no income,' says Mr Yeo. 'Even though I didn't say anything, he could tell.'
More foreign workers - mostly from Myanmar and the Philippines - from nearby industrial estates are also visiting Dr Koh's clinic. They now account for 20 per cent of his patients.
'They have cultural and adjustment problems, and now, during the recession, they also have financial problems,' says Dr Koh. 'As a doctor, I want to be one who can hopefully make them well - but definitely not make them poor.'
Affluent customers who had previously gone to clinics in the Orchard area are also turning up. In total, the clinic has seen a 20 per cent jump in patient numbers since last October.
'We used to see about a hundred patients a day,' says clinic receptionist Doreen Chow, 59, who has worked with Dr Koh for 15 years. 'But now, there are so many that we have to turn patients away at closing time.'
A Christian and a member of nearby Zion Church, Dr Koh attributes the way he runs his clinic to his religious beliefs and his kampung childhood.
The middle child of seven born to a hawker father and housewife mother grew up in Potong Pasir and attended Victoria School. 'Growing up in a kampung really makes you appreciate being part of a community. There are so many different kinds of people, but somehow, everyone gets along,' says the fluent speaker of Teochew, Hokkien and Cantonese.
He was the only one in his family to make it through medical school.
'I believe that being a doctor is a calling, not a job. It is not about dollars and cents. As long as I have met my bottom line, I am fine for the month,' says the doctor who drives a Volvo and lives in a semi-detached house in Thomson.
With six days of his week dedicated to healing the sick, the doctor admits that he does not spend as much time as he would like with his homemaker wife and their 13-year-old daughter.
'But my wife is extremely understanding. She likes to joke that my real address is my clinic in Toa Payoh,' says Dr Koh.
His dedication does not go unappreciated. 'He truly cares for us,' says Madam Catherine Ong, 80, a housewife whose family has been going to Dr Koh's clinic for the past 16 years. 'He is always patient, always careful, even if the patients are difficult.'
Toa Payoh housewife Chua Siew Lan, 48, adds: 'He remembers my entire family, knows us by name, and I trust him.'
Dr Koh hopes the deepening recession that has seen his patient numbers surge will bring out the best in his peers, as it has in him.
'I would like to believe that all doctors have some altruistic blood in their veins,' he says.
'I am sure that there are many others like me - I am no hero. I am just a human being who finds meaning through helping sick people.'
Dispensing encouraging words with medicine
DR KOH SEK KHOON, 48, has been operating Toa Payoh North Clinic and Surgery, located at Block 203, Toa Payoh North, #01-1111, for the past 18 years.
Since he started out, he has been charging less than most other doctors, a practice the National University of Singapore medical graduate says stems from his humble background and his Christian beliefs.
Since the recession began, he has seen a 20 per cent surge in patients, including more hardship cases. He has also started giving out steeper discounts, and sometimes does not charge for children or the elderly.
Dr Koh, who works 12-hour days six days a week, also tries to spend more time with patients to find out more about their situations, and dispenses words of encouragement along with medicine.