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SNEC Professor in Clinical Innovation in Ophthalmology
Academic Vice Chair (Research)SingHealth Duke-NUS Ophthalmology & Visual Sciences Academic Clinical Programme
Head & Senior Consultant Corneal & External Eye Disease Department, SNEC
Senior Consultant, Refractive Surgery Department and Cataract & Comprehensive Ophthalmology Department, SNEC
The realm of corneal transplants has advanced by leaps and bounds over the last 20 years – improved techniques have reduced patients’ downtime and improved success rates along with vision. And Professor Jodhbir Mehta has been right in the middle of this evolution, along with some of the best ophthalmologists in the world.
In 2009, the affable and ambitious professor was part of the team that developed the EndoGlide, an invention that improved corneal graft survival rates. The surgical device has been used over 20,000 times in 31 countries and is now in its third version.
The widespread success of the EndoGlide is one of the strongest affirmations for Prof Mehta that Academic Medicine, gruelling as it is, is worth chasing.
“Just taking corneal transplants alone as an example. I can maybe do 100 to 150 cases a year, but the EndoGlide has already reached so many more people. The impact [of translational research] is way beyond [our physical capacity],” says Prof Mehta, who is ready for bigger tasks ahead.
He recently received the SNEC Professorship in Clinical Innovation in Ophthalmology, garnering over $7.6million in research funds, and has a firm eye on developing new therapies and translating them.
“We are working to simplify procedures, such as doing cells injections instead of surgical transplants. If we can intervene early and avoid surgery, the downstream effects will be huge, more people will have access to treatment and there are significant healthcare cost savings as well” he says.
The big move
Prof Mehta’s success was not entirely anticipated by his peers back in 2006. They were in disbelief when he announced his plans to move his career from the prestigious Moorfields Eye Hospital in the UK to Singapore. But he chose to focus on the potential for success here.
“What I saw was definitely very different from the UK, but because Singapore is small, we can be very nimble. Results from research can be quickly translated and brought to patients. And people here tend to have a can-do attitude, and try to see the utility in our efforts,” he says, also citing the supportive local research funding bodies as a motivational push for researchers.
Tenacity is key
While his rise to prominence may appear smooth, Prof Mehta stresses that anyone who engages in a hybrid career needs a hefty dose of perseverance. “It can be very disheartening and you’ll feel down when papers get rejected at times. You can choose to focus on the disappointment, or you can see that the work can really make a difference, and persevere,” says Prof Mehta.
What helps a clinician-scientist or innovator stay on track is also support all-round from top management, administrative and healthcare colleagues and like-minded peers.
Prof Mehta cites comrades-in-arms, including in his case Professors Wong Tien Yin, Aung Tin and Tina Wong, who are able to empathise with his ups and downs. “You need friends who understand the unique anxieties of the job,” he jests.
His motivation also comes from the desire to improve his patients’ lives. When a project comes to fruition through translation, the work truly goes full circle. “We have the ability in SNEC and SERI to go from patients, back to the lab, to animals and then back to patients. Very few institutes can do that,” says Prof Mehta.
The feted professor stresses that the success of a clinician-scientist is never his or hers alone. “[We can’t forget] the people who prep the operating theatres, nurses, lab researchers who care for the animals and our academic researchers. It may be my name on the grant but it’s the whole team that contributes,” he states.
Helping talents shine
Having a sustainable Academic Medicine culture hinges on expanding the pipeline of young researchers and innovators, says Prof Mehta, and those in senior positions have to listen to juniors to find out their difficulties and help them move towards their goals. At the same time, mentors should be frank (and tactful) when something doesn’t best serve their trainee, he adds.
Prof Mehta recalls a senior trainee who was the best senior house officer in his year who “aced all the surgery exams”. But being petite it was pointed out that she might later suffer physical strain from her surgical work, her supervisor advised her to choose interventional radiology instead. “She was upset for a while but she took the advice and is now the best in her field,” he says.
Research also calls for a different set of skills – writing and presentation – and aspiring clinician-scientists and innovators need a leg up in this area through organised programmes. “I’m not a natural public speaker but I’ve learned over the years that it takes practice to deliver a good presentation, especially to a big audience, says Prof Mehta.
Today, the Ophthalmology & Visual Sciences Academic Clinical Programme has over 25 clinicians cum researchers on the team, shares the professor, compared to just “three or four” more than a decade ago, and the number is set to grow as younger doctors join the fold.
Assessing the evolution and growth of Academic Medicine in Singapore, Prof Mehta cites as an example the dramatically rising number of female trainees in Saudi Arabia’s medical landscape over the last decade, a surprising scene in the patriarchal state. “Some people think it’s not possible to change culture. But that’s not true at all,” he says. “Culture can evolve by external pressures and environment."