Refund for breast cancer patients given unnecessary treatment at KTPH

Even after discounting subsidy some of these patients had got, refunds will likely be millions of dollars

At least 200 patients were wrongly diagnosed by Khoo Teck Puat Hospital's (KTPH) laboratory with a protein that made their breast cancer more aggressive. Some were given unnecessary treatment that likely cost tens of thousands of dollars for each of them.

The results of a retest for eight patients are still pending.

On Dec 11, KTPH disclosed that about 180 patients had been wrongly diagnosed with HER-2 positive breast cancer, and that it was reviewing tests done since 2012.


HER-2 is a less common form of breast cancer and generally affects 15 per cent to 20 per cent of such patients. The first and most commonly used drug that targets this type of cancer is Herceptin.

Replying to questions in Parliament from several MPs yesterday, Senior Minister of State for Health Koh Poh Koon said common side effects are diarrhoea, chills and fatigue. About 3 per cent to 4 per cent of patients may suffer heart problems.

Doctors are reaching out to affected patients to help them and to assess any side effects from the drug, he said.

Ms Cheryl Chan (East Coast GRC) asked why it took so long for the error to be discovered.

Dr Koh replied that 6 per cent of patients globally are wrongly diagnosed as having HER-2 positive breast cancer, which involves a highly complex test without a definitive answer.

He said it takes a trained pathologist to make a judgment on the test result. But this could be affected by the multiple steps that require human intervention, such as the concentration of stains and how the tissue was handled.

It requires a fairly large number of results to trigger an alert on the possibility of a disproportionate number of patients being diagnosed with the condition.

Dr Koh said the mistakes were discovered because of the "institutional process". KTPH's tumour board had flagged that the number of HER-2 positive cases was higher than normal, leading to the review.

He added that reviews were done for patients diagnosed as having HER-2 positive breast cancer since 2012 because that was when the hospital first started doing such tests, and not because errors had occurred then.

Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Sembawang GRC) and Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC) asked about the additional cost incurred by affected patients.

Dr Tan, a cancer specialist, suggested that compensation take into account the time taken from work by a patient or caregiver for the unnecessary treatment.

Dr Koh said it was difficult to give a figure as the cost varies with individual patients.

Furthermore, he said not all the 200 patients who were wrongly diagnosed were given Herceptin. Some, he added, may have been too frail.

The Straits Times understands that Herceptin costs $3,000 to $4,000 a cycle in the public sector, and about $5,000 in the private sector.

Eight of the patients given the wrong diagnosis were treated in private hospitals.

"The portion of the bills which arose from the unnecessary treatment will be fully refunded," said Dr Koh.

Even discounting the subsidy that some of these patients had received, the refunds will likely be millions of dollars.