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Seah Cheng Siang Professor in Medicine
SingHealth Duke-NUS Medicine Academic Clinical Programme
Deputy Group Chief Executive Officer (Medical and Clinical Services), SingHealth
Senior Consultant, Rheumatology & Immunology, Singapore General Hospital
Dedicated physician. Passionate educator. Avid researcher. A first-starter in Singapore's Academic Medicine landscape. And famously, one of a team of master physicians who tended to the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew for almost two decades.
Professor Fong Kok Yong may have built an illustrious Academic Medicine career for the last four decades but he is far from being done. Instead, the well-respected figure is still busy strategising ways to evolve medical education and fine-tuning the workings of the Academic Clinical Programme (ACP) he started. And plans are underway to honour the legacy of Professor Seah Cheng Siang, whose named professorship Prof Fong was awarded.
Values are key
"When we educate the next generation of doctors, it's important to not just help them acquire knowledge, but also transmit the right values such as compassion, integrity and collaboration. Values differentiate a really good physician from just a competent one. We also want to inculcate priorities of safety, professionalism, respect, experience and efficiency in service quality to patients," says Prof Fong.
It comes as no surprise that Prof Fong had worked in Prof Seah's medical unit in SGH for a year in the early days of his career. Prof Seah was not just credited with advancing medical education and clinical excellence in Singapore; the principled doctor treated all patients equally regardless of their affluence or status. (He once made former president Mr Wee Kim Wee wait 20 minutes in the clinic to tend to a patient in a C-class ward.)
"Prof Seah was known for being strict on his trainees and maintaining a culture of discipline. [Through his method], he raised a whole generation of clinical leaders," recalls Prof Fong.
Prof Fong hopes to leverage the professorship to recognise worthy educators through awards and provide opportunities for young researchers to launch studies in health services.
While it may not be hard science research, health services studies have been found to resonate well with clinicians including doctors, nurses and allied health professionals, notes Prof Fong, and they draw everyone onto the same page as multi-disciplinary collaboration become increasingly the norm.
"For instance, how do we define clinical skills in the digital age? They can change over time. What were considered soft skills in the past are now very important," says Prof Fong.
He adds, "Through research, we want to find a way to quantity values. Like, how do you measure empathy? The ultimate goal is to bring the results back to the educators and identify the values that the next generation of doctors need to have."
Pioneer in Academic Medicine
One of Prof Fong's biggest projects across his career was building up the Autoimmunity and Rheumatology Centre (ARC) at SGH about a decade ago, aimed at becoming a one-stop hub for clinical services, education and training and research and innovation.
"The whole department is very academic in outlook and we have outstanding research outputs, thanks to a big group of young doctors who are passionate about their work," says Prof Fong, who also creatively uses philanthropy as a way to generate public awareness of autoimmunity and rheumatology and raise funds for research.
Affirming the team's efforts, the Asia Pacific League of Associations for Rheumatology (APLAR) awarded ARC the Centre of Excellence in 2017.
"But this is not the end point. We have to be a centre of excellence, which means we have to level up all the time," stresses Prof Fong.
Along the way, Prof Fong also started the Medicine ACP in 2011, an ambitious undertaking that encompasses 12 medical disciplines. And one of his initiatives, the "Nurturing Clinician Scientist Scheme" has helped doctors attain "protected time" for research – a practice that is now applied across the entire institution.
"We have done well for the last eight to nine years. Now to take the ACP to maturity, we have to look at levelling the AM culture across all departments, introduce medical humanities to our training and look into global health initiatives for impact," says Prof Fong.
And as for what keeps him motivated, Prof Fong cites the three Ms – meaning, mastery and morale. "The ability to perform meaningful work to benefit patients, master clinical skills and best practices and develop high morale among colleagues and associates can be very gratifying," he explains.
Commitment trumps talent
When asked on his thoughts on how to cultivate Academic Medicine talents, Prof Fong emphasises that "the keyword is not so much talent as it is commitment".
"We have a structured system of identifying talents now and they have many opportunities for up-skilling. But opportunities do not teach commitment; only role modelling can," he explains.
Prof Fong is also mindful that retaining talents also hinges on the treatment of senior consultants in the institution. "We have to send the message that there is no sell-by date for committed doctors, and that everyone has an important role to play throughout his or her career here," he says.
For all his contributions and well-placed ideals, Prof Fong prefers to downplay them as "small things", saying "I'm glad that my experience in various healthcare institutions helped in my management and set-up of a functioning care delivery system at the ARC and to have been placed in a position such as ACP chair to push things forward. And on a personal level, it's very satisfying to have contributed to patients' lives over a long period, from illness to recovery."
At last Prof Fong subtly relents, "I suppose small things can add up to make a difference."