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Finding a Higher Calling

While the concept of Academic Medicine may be relatively new in SingHealth, one might say Associate Professor Tan Bien Keem was naturally inclined to it.

In his eyes, engaging in multi-disciplinary work is the only way to advance in today’s clinical practice – and to reach a vocational peak both in skills and in spirit.

“I have always regarded research and teaching as part of clinical practice. It’s a natural extension and expansion of what we do,” says the Academic Deputy Chair of the Musculoskeletal Sciences Academic Clinical Programme.

While research fosters innovative ways of treating challenging conditions, education is crucial to ensure that skills and knowledge are passed down and shared. “You have to do for your juniors what your seniors have done for you,” Assoc Prof Tan said.

As an Academic Medicine leader, Assoc Prof Tan sees it as his mission to ensure the three pillars of medicine – clinical work, research and education – are upheld equally.

Some challenges are common to all. Doctors have to grapple with increased paperwork and new legislative hurdles in any research effort. Enthusiasm for results has to be tempered with ethical responsibilities. “It is easy to lose steam if we’re not fuelled by a profound passion,” he says.

Forging meaningful exchanges

In his quest to bring plastic surgery in Singapore to new heights, Assoc Prof Tan has been building connections with some of the biggest names in the field and helping his colleagues access knowhow beyond local hospital walls.

On each visit to Duke Health, Assoc Prof Tan made it a point to expand his professional network and foster meaningful collaborations. Since 2015, experts including Prof Scott Levin (he led the world’s first paediatric double-hand transplant), Prof Bruce Klitzman (renowned researcher in bioengineering), Prof Michael Zenn (an authority on reconstructive flaps) and more have taken turns to share their knowledge and join in procedures with the SingHealth clinical teams. 

And in return, Assoc Prof Tan was invited to present the latest advances from this part of the world and conduct teaching sessions for residents at Duke Health. The result: a fruitful learning experience on both continents. 

Marching to the next frontier of transplant surgery

When the AM-ETHOS Academic Mentor Development Fellowship rolled out, Assoc Prof Tan took the opportunity to contact Associate Professor of Surgery at Duke Health, Linda Cendales for her expertise on Vascularised Composite Allotransplantation (VCA). Well-versed in the pathology of rejection in VCA, Assoc Prof Cendales was able to advise on clinical issues and best practices for setting up a VCA programme in Singapore – one that will “push the transplant barrier”, because skin-bearing transplants such as the hands and face are more challenging with higher risks of rejection.

While actual cases have yet to come, Assoc Prof Tan and his team, together with Professor Yur-Ren Kuo of Kaohsiung Medical University, have been honing their skills with simulation and animal surgery.

The face of success

Assoc Prof Tan’s fervent belief in his work is clear to any observer. Whether it is delivering the most refined surgical outcome or opening new doors of opportunity for members of his team, he is tireless in following through on his goals.

He hopes to inspire the new generation of doctors to pursue “a higher calling”. He says, “Success is not only defined by how competent you are but also by how much you have done to inspire the next generation.”

About our awardee

Associate Professor Tan Bien Keem
Academic Deputy Chair, Musculoskeletal Sciences Academic Clinical Programme
Head & Senior Consultant, Plastic Reconstructive & Aesthetic Surgery, Singapore General Hospital
Academic Mentor
Associate Professor Linda Carime Cendales
Associate Professor of Surgery, Duke Health