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Serving Patients with All Our Hearts

Article_Jun2018_ProfTan.jpgMeet Assoc Prof Tan Hak Koon, the new Designated Institutional Official (DIO) at SingHealth Residency! Assoc Prof Tan, who is also Head of the Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology (O&G) at Singapore General Hospital (SGH), oversees the development of Residents at SingHealth. We speak to Assoc Prof Tan to find out what inspires him as a doctor, and what advice he may have for young doctors who want to better prepare themselves to face the coming challenges in healthcare.

Why did you choose to pursue a career in Medicine?

The answer is simple: because I think it is a noble career. Everyone falls sick, and when you are sick, you suffer. Medicine is the most direct way of helping others. As a doctor, I can reduce my patients' suffering, be it physical or mental.

When I was younger, I suffered from severe asthma. For 15 years, I would have an asthmatic attack almost daily. They were so severe that I had to miss school and even final exams. This was the 1960s in Johor, and I could not just walk to the nearest clinic or General Practitioner—there was not one to be found where I lived! A doctor would come to my town only once a week. In the meantime, I just had to find ways to cope. I remember being breathless so many nights, not being able to sleep. Growing up in a small kampung, I saw lots of suffering because of poor healthcare. Maybe that also shaped my decision to eventually become a doctor.

What made you choose your specialty?

I am a very practical person by nature. I like something surgical, where you can see results. So, on that level, O&G suits me. The nature of O&G, the act of bringing life into the world is in itself meaningful.

Aside from that, as a student, I saw that mishaps could happen in obstetrics. Mothers could die during labour, maybe even bleed to death. When I saw that, I felt that maybe there was something that I could do here; to play a part in ensuring that childbirth takes place safely for both mother and child.

With the evolving healthcare landscape, how can medical students prepare themselves for future healthcare challenges?

One challenge would be the advancement of medical knowledge and technology. Every day, knowledge and technology are changing, developing, growing. There is almost too much knowledge to keep up with. I think medical students have to be prepared to keep learning. Make lifelong learning a habit, so that you can keep abreast of developments in healthcare, which will help you become a more effective physician.

Another challenge would be the changing profile of our patients. Nowadays, with the Internet, some people might say the best doctor is Google (laughs). Our patients read widely and are better informed. As their doctors, we have to know more than them, so that we can convince them about the right course of treatment. I think this also relates to my earlier point that we also need to improve; not just our medical knowledge and skills, but also our soft skills—things like communication and teamwork need to be a priority. Medicine is a personal job, in that way.

What qualities should medical students possess when pursuing a career in Medicine?

Whether young or old, every doctor should have a sense of personal integrity and honesty. There will be difficult times, but always do the right thing. In addition, you need to be kind, compassionate and collegial with team members. You also need to build up your persistence and resilience. This is not easy work. If you really believe in what you do, persevere through the setbacks. Have realistic expectations about the kind of work that is to come in your career. You must be willing to serve in this role, to serve the patients and the public.

Most importantly, you have to look after yourself, mentally and physically. Stay healthy! It is a tough job. You need to be ready in all aspects to face the challenges ahead.

What is your advice to medical students on choosing their medical specialties?

Take your time to find your interest, and to really understand yourself. If you have a specialty in mind, but you are not sure, do a posting in it. Get involved with a research project in that area. This will help you to see if it is what you really want to do.

The most important thing is not to rush. I think deciding on a specialty can sometimes be like committing to a marriage (laughs). You will be doing it for the next 40 years! So, make an informed decision, take it seriously—as seriously as you would a marriage.

Remember also that with a greater position comes a greater responsibility. We always think: "Wow, this specialist can do whatever he or she wants!" However, it is not as simple as that. As a specialist, you have to know your area of expertise inside out. People will look to you for decisions. You will make the final call on patients in your expertise. This is not something to be toyed around with. Be serious with what is entrusted to you.

Most importantly, remember that every area of medicine is important. Every specialty is just as useful and critical as another. Wherever you go, you will make a difference.