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Professor Ng Wai Hoe has been with SingHealth for close to two decades.
In 2004, the newly qualified neurosurgeon joined the National Neuroscience Institute as an associate consultant, rising in 2015 to Medical Director, a position he held for close to six years. His next post, CEO of Changi General Hospital, came in 2020, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. He also became SingHealth’s Deputy Group CEO (Strategy & Planning). This role involved thinking about the future, formulating plans, and coming up with strategies that would position SingHealth well over the next five to ten years.
In November last year, he was awarded ‘Most People-Focused CEO’ at the Human Resources Excellence Awards 2023, a testament to his commitment to staff and the organisation. “Healthcare is essentially about our people. Our work is to heal and comfort; the role of a healthcare leader therefore is to care for our people so they can do their best to care for our patients and the community,” he said.
As he is about to plunge into his next mission at SingHealth as Group CEO — “no rest for the weary,” he quipped — we caught up with the busy man one Monday afternoon last October and had a very pleasant time peeling back the layers to unveil a man who loves reading, longdistance running and hawker food.
Share with us your journey to become a doctor.
Of all the subjects in school, I enjoyed biology the most, especially articles from Scientific American. I would pull out all the articles on neuroscience as I got very interested in that. At the medical school interview, I was asked what specialty I would like to pursue; I told them I was keen on neuroscience.
As a child, I was always tinkering with my hands. I would dismantle TVs, radios and watches, and try to reassemble them. While doing my medical and surgical postings in medical school, I realised that I enjoyed the surgical ones more. So, becoming a neurosurgeon seemed to be a natural fit for me, as it married my love for tinkering on mechanical things with my interest in neuroscience.
SOURCE: THE STRAITS TIMES © SPH MEDIA LIMITED. PERMISSION REQUIRED FOR REPRODUCTION
What are some challenges in neurosurgery?
The brain is arguably one of the most intricate structures in the human body. Neurosurgeons operate through very small surgical corridors, on structures that are minute, where there’s little room for error in surgical technique and approach. This process is often nuanced due to the unique differences from patient to patient. This need for precision and clinical judgement is quite challenging and exciting for me as a surgeon.
At the same time, neurosurgery is very cognitive. The surgeon must have an indepth understanding of the principles of neurology and physiology, and balance that knowledge with the unique anatomy and technical challenges of each patient, making it a mixture of art and science.
I think some people would also say it’s a challenge to one’s bladder, because surgeries last a long time, and you’ll need to hold your bladder for several hours! [laughs] Five to six hours would be quite a common duration for a neurosurgical operation. While neurosurgeons need not be worldclass athletes, the job does call for a certain level of fitness as it is physically demanding and requires a certain degree of cognitive reasoning and resilience.
Is that why you’re a voracious reader and keen jogger?
There’s this thing in the rumour mill that I read a lot. I probably read more in the past, and I should read more than what I do currently. My all-time favourite writer is JRR Tolkien — I first read Lord of the Rings when I was 11; I’ve probably read the entire series about three times. I’ve been leaning towards non-fiction these days. For example, John C Maxwell’s Leadershift is about the mind-shifts that people need to make as they assume leadership positions.
I like going for long runs; they give me time to reflect and think while helping me to burn calories for the next big meal!
Why is brain surgery sometimes done on an awake patient?
The procedure is called ‘awake craniotomy’ or ‘awake brain surgery’. When we are operating on parts of the brain that control critical body functions — for example, the areas that control our language and speech abilities — we want the patient to be awake so that we can assess them. If the patient can speak normally, it means that there is no damage to the language centre.
Patients are very informed nowadays. I have had patients who request for awake surgery because they’ve read that it gives them the best chance to preserve certain functions.
Any tip or advice for enhancing brain health?
For a long time, it was believed that neurogenesis, where the brain can regenerate and form new brain cells, did not exist beyond childhood. However, studies have shown that regular exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, can promote the formation of new brain cells. So I recommend regular exercise for about 30 minutes per session. What I do not recommend is binge drinking or excessive alcohol intake.
Rapid response from Prof Ng
…the greatest place for healthcare.
SingHealth is not…
…scary for patients.
I don’t think I’ve done anything particularly brave. If anything, it’s my patients who are the brave ones; they inspire me.
I have a fear of heights. You won’t find me going bungee jumping, or standing on tall or elevated structures with a glass floor where one can look down from a height. Oh, and I am afraid of snakes.
I like hawker food. Meepok, nasi lemak, nasi padang — these are some of my favourites. I exercise so that I can enjoy the food I love.
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