By Sean Firoz, Senior Executive, Communications & External Relations
When asked to cite an experience that sums up her passion for medicine, Associate Professor Tham Kum Ying shared an overseas community involvement project (OCIP) when she was in her third year of medical school. On that trip, she found herself in the hot seat, having to put all of her three years of medical education to the test to attend to her OCIP host – who became very sick one night.
Making a diagnosis of malaria and gathering what little medical supplies were in the house and in her backpack, Assoc Prof Tham acted fast. Thankfully, her host got better after taking the medicine.
After going through many OCIPs herself, Assoc Prof Tham continues to go to different countries often with students to give back to the community
Now a senior emergency medicine consultant at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) and LKCMedicine Assistant Dean for Year 5, Assoc Prof Tham is still fuelled by the same passion to do the right thing for patients.
The good doctor in training
Thriving on adrenaline, Assoc Prof Tham spent her medical school years making the most out of her clinical rotations while playing competitive softball and making fast friends with her clinical team of nine.
After medical school and housemanship, Assoc Prof Tham was looking for the right field to make her career in. A six-month posting in neurosurgery made her realise that long, complex operations were not for her. Outside of the operating theatre however, she enjoyed learning from these complex cases and caring for patients pre- and post-surgery.
When it comes to patients, Assoc Prof Tham enjoys spending time caring for them and learning from their cases as well, so that she would be able to teach them to the next generation of doctors
It wasn't until her second year as a medical officer that Assoc Prof Tham found the perfect fit and was hooked immediately by the hustle and bustle of an emergency doctor.
Assoc Prof Tham said, "It is always exciting in the emergency department; you never know whether the patient who walks in is a simple, straightforward case or is going to faint and collapse."
"I like that element of unpredictability, and as the pace is very fast and requires you to make good decisions in an instant, I enjoy the work very much."
Assoc Prof Tham works tirelessly with her team of nurses and fellow doctors to ensure the best care and attention are given to the patients. With more than 400 cases per day, the team needs to prioritise care and diagnose patients accurately.
For example, during one of her shifts, a senior nurse quietly insisted Assoc Prof Tham finish a consultation early to see another patient outside. Trusting her colleague, Assoc Prof Tham saw the patient, only to find out that she was suffering from a serious heart attack and was rapidly deteriorating.
It is in these moments that Assoc Prof Tham really appreciates having a tight-knit and reliable team in the emergency department.
"When an emergency patient comes in, it is never a one-man show. Teamwork is so heavily integrated in emergency medicine that it is a great advantage in this field."
Assoc Prof Tham was one of the first to win the TTSH Best Teacher Award in 2000 for engaging and inspiring medical students and junior doctors. At the time, she had no idea what she did right, but it triggered a thought that maybe she could expand her horizons.
She decided to pursue a Master of Science (MSc) in Training and Human Resource Management from the University of Leicester in 2006, which gave her a strong background in the administrative aspects of training and education. She was then appointed by NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine as Associate Dean and Director of Clinical Training at TTSH in 2007, spending half her time taking care of medical students and trainees in the hospital.
Back then, Assoc Prof Tham's medical education experiences focused on emergency medicine, where she continues to teach medical students. In late 2008 a new opportunity opened up: NTU approached TTSH and NHG to join a new venture with Imperial to create Singapore's newest medical school, now known as the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine.
As one of the pioneers who shaped the MBBS curriculum, Assoc Prof Tham had a hand in creating the curriculum in the local context for LKCMedicine students
Assoc Prof Tham took on the challenge and the role of Assistant Dean of Phase 2 and 3, where she was part of a group of pioneers who shaped the MBBS curriculum. With the School now having enrolled five full cohorts across the MBBS programme, she is looking forward to curriculum plans that deliver doctors you and I would like to have caring for us.
"All of us who were involved from the very beginning with the first cohort, and now seeing them in Year 5, are really looking forward to the day we see them pass their exams, finish their Student Assistantship Programme and start work in the hospitals," said Assoc Prof Tham, who is now the Assistant Dean for Year 5.
Being an Assistant Dean makes up just half of her role as she also teaches key modules on emergency medicine at LKCMedicine. Teaching Team-Based Learning (TBL) classes gives her a sense of fulfilment, especially coming from an education background that consisted of lectures and tutorials.
"After coming from a lecture-based education background, I've realised that lectures are not very effective in helping students to learn. Students learn much better when you give them the chance to interact, and that's why I switched to TBL completely even outside of LKCMedicine."
With this fiery passion in teaching the next generation of medical students, it is no wonder she won the National Outstanding Clinician Educator Award at the 2017 National Medical Excellence Award Ceremony back in August, which recognises her outstanding contributions and exemplary dedication to advancing medical education and training.
It's all about making the most of your time
Assoc Prof Tham's drive to learn, teach and save lives is what motivates her to take on new challenges, most recently pursuing a Doctor in Education (EdD) dual award programme at the National Institute of Education, in which she graduated earlier this August.
"I feel very relieved that it's over! I had a lot of fun doing the project, even though it was very taxing and my sleeping hours dropped to about 4 hours per night. But getting to know my organisation and speak to a few of my bosses and seniors were really the highlight of my project."
In between juggling hospital and teaching duties, Assoc Prof Tham finally finished her Doctor in Education (EdD) dual award programme at the National Institute of Education
How does she juggle her many leadership roles and commitments?
"The most important thing is to have teams that work well together, if I didn't have amazing people around me, I will never be efficient."
Even during her off days, Assoc Prof Tham travels the world, visiting exotic places like the Taroko Gorge in Taiwan and Machu Picchu in Peru.
"I am much more of a nature person, and if I were to pick a holiday that I really want to go, I will pick places with natural phenomenon that I can appreciate."
With such a hectic work life, personal and family time are few and far between for Assoc Prof Tham. But as her mother ages, she makes sure to see her family as much as possible, even if it's just once a month.
"My family has always been very close, with little to no quarrels between us. And growing up, my family has always been there for me."
As the Year 5 LKCMedicine students embark on their final leg as medical students, more work is to be done for the already busy clinician. But no matter the job, one can tell just how much she loves what she does, and her drive to do the impossible is nothing short of admirable.