By Nicole Lim
Assistant Director, Communications & External Relations
Seeing the distress of new mothers who’d just been told that not only they but their newborn were HIV-positive made Associate Professor Naomi Low-Beer, a consultant gynaecologist from the UK, determined to improve treatment options and care for these women.
“This was in the old days of HIV, when we didn’t know quite as much about how to prevent it and anti-retroviral therapy was just being introduced,” said Assoc Prof Low-Beer, who decided to complete her MD research project on vaginal microbicide gels to prevent HIV transmission from mother to baby. She combined her research with antenatal clinics specifically for pregnant women with HIV.
Assoc Prof Low-Beer’s desire to help patients in need stems in part from her own upbringing. The daughter of two psychiatrists, Assoc Prof Low-Beer grew up in a home where recovering psychiatric patients and even refugees found a warm welcome. “At the time in the 70s and 80s, this was unusual but not unheard of and it instilled in me an ethos of looking after others, particularly those who are marginalised or are in difficult circumstances,” she said.
Her late grandmother, too, was a strong influence. Although she passed away when Assoc Prof Low-Beer was five, she heard many stories about her. “My grandmother was one of the first female doctors to be trained in India in the 1920s. After she completed her training, she travelled to villages to look after the most sick and vulnerable, including those ostracised from society such as leprosy sufferers. She also helped women who were going through difficult childbirths who would have died without her medical intervention,” said Assoc Prof Low-Beer, who recently had the opportunity to visit the Christian Medical College in Vellore, where her grandmother was educated, during a School leadership trip.
Even her decision to specialise in obstetrics and gynaecology was shaped by her desire to fulfil a need, which in this case was women’s wish to be looked after by a female doctor at a time when the specialty was still dominated by men.
From looking after pregnant women with HIV, Assoc Prof Low-Beer became interested in providing better care and services for women who had undergone ritual female circumcision or female genital mutilation (FGM) – which ranges from a small cut to the clitoris to narrowing of the vaginal orifice by cutting and appositioning the labia and clitoris. Seeing women, especially those with more extreme forms of circumcision only on the labour ward meant there was no time for discussion and consultation about their circumcision and what to do during delivery. “We just had to intervene, which was not the right way to do things. So together with my colleagues at the Chelsea and Westminster NHS Hospital, I set up a dedicated one-stop service for women with FGM, many of whom came from communities with little access to care. As well as the medical and health service, we also directly engaged the community to make them more aware of the service and the health implications of FGM,” said Assoc Prof Low-Beer, whose involvement grew to a national level via the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG).
Throughout her career, Assoc Prof Low-Beer combined her clinical work with teaching and later medical education research. A firm believer that the age-old model of ‘see one, do one, teach one’ was no longer good enough to meet the growing needs and expectations of patients, she is committed to improving patient care through a generation of better trained and equipped doctors.
After completing a diploma in medical education and a stint as an educational research fellow working on curriculum development for the RCOG, Assoc Prof Low-Beer became the first clinical lecturer in medical education of the then-newly introduced National Institute for Health Research training programme. Working mainly on curriculum development and simulation, she completed her Masters in Medical Education at Imperial, all of which put her in the perfect position to take on the role first of Curriculum Development Lead and later Vice-Dean for Education at LKCMedicine, where she played a key role in shaping the School’s innovative curriculum and pedagogy. “We are training the next generation of doctors to approach learning and clinical practice in a scholarly way, to share decision-making with their patients and to work effectively in teams. I believe that LKCMedicine graduates will transform healthcare for patients,” she said.
From the planning of the curriculum, Assoc Prof Low-Beer’s focus has now shifted to ensure that the School retains its distinctiveness as the cohorts grow and travel to different healthcare sites across Singapore. She is also keen to extend ties with Imperial through faculty and student exchanges. “From a more personal perspective, I’m also keen to get back to clinical practice and am keen to explore opportunities with KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital,” she said.
Assoc Prof Low-Beer is also leading the School’s Medical Education Research and Scholarship Unit (MERSU), which is already conducting a number of research projects, including the impact of transitions (such as the transition from pre-clinical to clinical years), and the neuroscientific basis for diagnostic reasoning. “We have received a National Research Foundation grant to use brain imaging to better understand and map the way medical students and doctors think when making diagnostic decisions. This research will allow us to understand how best to teach our students about diagnostic reasoning, and has the potential to help identify strategies to reduce medical errors in the future,” said Assoc Prof Low-Beer.
Having just celebrated her first anniversary here in Singapore, Assoc Prof Low-Beer says that her proudest moment so far came when she received email compliments on the Year 3 students’ behaviour on the wards from doctors, nurses, allied health professionals and even patients. “Reading these reports that talked about the skills that embody the School’s very ethos – empathy, compassion and professionalism - really made me proud and confirms that we are making a difference,” said Assoc Prof Low-Beer.