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Image: Prof Tan Hak Koon, second from right, mentoring his students.
Winner of the National Outstanding Clinician Educator Award 2021, Prof Tan Hak Koon is all about mentoring the next generation of doctors and caring for their well-being. He shares with us his philosophy and why he’s so passionate about his role as a trusted mentor to the young ones.
“Relax. You’re all already equipped with the skills, so don’t worry too much. When you’re less stressed about everything, you’ll learn better and the achievements will follow.”
These are the wise and empathetic words to stressed out young doctors from Prof Tan Hak Koon, winner of the National Outstanding Clinician Educator Award 2021.
He wears many hats: Chairman and Senior Consultant of the Division of Obstetrics and Gynaecology as well as Chief of Obstetrics at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, Chairman of the SingHealth Duke-NUS Obstetrics and Gynaecology Academic Clinical Programme, Designated Institutional Official of the SingHealth Residency, and Associate Dean (Office of Academic Clinical Development) and Clinical Professor in Duke-NUS Medical School - so he definitely knows more than a thing or two about nurturing and educating younger doctors.
For Prof Tan, it’s more than just teaching them the practical skills of being a doctor. It’s also about nurturing them to be good people, looking out for them and helping them along the way. The Tomorrow’s Medicine team sits down with him to learn his philosophy to medicine and mentorship.
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It’s uncommon to find someone who lets his actions speak for him, and even rarer that someone’s actions speak so well for him that not many words are even needed.
Prof Tan belongs to that rare breed of quietly inspiring mentors.
When asked how he mentors his juniors, Prof Tan says without batting an eyelid. “I believe that everyone is intrinsically good and will strive to do the right thing, so what the young doctors need are good role models to follow. So I try my very best to be the doctor I think my juniors should be.”
“I’ve been a doctor for more than 30 years now, and I am in the last leg of my career.. In truth, I’m just really grateful for all I’ve received. If you look at my career as a soccer game, I’m in the last 15 minutes of it and I want to give back whatever I can now. This is my way of doing that.”
– Prof Tan Hak Koon
It is this quality of empathy that shines through Prof Tan’s words when he speaks about helping the younger doctors.
He says with a smile, “I feel for them, because I was once like them. I was very fortunate to have wonderful mentors and teachers to guide me when I was a fresh doctor. I want to pay this forward to the next generation and help them keep going on the right path.”
While he’s had many mentors in his career, one who has stood out particularly is Prof Ho Tew Hong, currently an Emeritus Consultant in the Division of Obstetrics & Gynaecology at KKH and Senior Consultant at Singapore General Hospital.
“Prof Ho was firm but very caring, and I learnt a lot from him,” shares Prof Tan. “Beyond that, I also learnt that mentoring is different from merely teaching skills. As a mentor, there’s that element of imparting morals and ethics, of moulding these juniors of ours into good people.”
In medical education, it takes a team of good people to mould good doctors, “There are many excellent educators and mentors in SingHealth. I am happy that this prestigious award is given to the SingHealth team, and I am receiving this on behalf of everyone.”
Having mentored and nurtured numerous young doctors, medical students, clinician scientist residents, and even nurses and allied health professionals since the 1990s, it is clear that Prof Tan has a special soft spot for mentoring the young ones.
“It’s stressful to be a doctor today, you know!”, he states with a chuckle. “It’s definitely tougher now, and expectations on all fronts are greater. Work processes and patients’ medical conditions are also more complicated.”
He’s certainly done much to help them. Prof Tan is one of the active advocates for a better clinical learning environment for residents and an improvement to their work-life balance. He has also ensured that his residents received as much training and support as possible through the pandemic.
Most significantly, Prof Tan also led the establishment of a crisis management pathway in 2018, as a one-stop helpline for doctors and other medical professionals who are feeling burnt out and stressed to get the help they need.
He explains, “In the midst of all this - the pressures of modern living and the disruption that Covid-19 has brought - I want to do my part to make medicine a more sustainable career for these junior doctors. They are, after all, our future.”
At the end of it all, Prof Tan simply sees his role as a mentor as giving back to the institution he’s gained so much from over the years, and also to the valued mentors he’s had the privilege of learning from over the years.
He shares, “I’ve been a doctor for more than 30 years now, and I am in the last leg of my career. In truth, I’m just really grateful for all I’ve received. If you look at my career as a soccer game, I’m in the last 15 minutes of it and I want to give back whatever I can now. This is my way of doing that.”