August 2015 | Issue 19
Humanity in Medicine
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By Nicole Lim

Assistant Director, Communications & External Relations

​After an anxious wait, the automated diagnostic machine issues a diagnosis chit, some medication and you’re done, left on your own to deal with the news. That’s how Assistant Dean for Integrated Care Associate Professor Chin Jing Jih described a world where medicine is practised without humanity.

Executive Vice-Dean for Administration Professor Lionel Lee agrees. “If you take the human side out of medicine, then doctors will be nothing more than robots,” he said. 

Humanity in medicine lies in the comfort, empathy and care a healthcare professional offers another human being during a time of vulnerability and uncertainty. It is the recognition that it’s not just the physical recovery that matters. Assoc Prof Chin, who co-leads the School’s Professionalism, Ethics, Law, Leadership and Safety course, said, “Diseases badly disturb people’s emotional well-being and in addressing the disease, you also need to address that disturbance.”

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Dr Lam Pin Min, Guest-of-Honour at the launch of the Humanity in Medicine exhibition, with Prof Lionel Lee at the Operation Blue Heron, East Timor (1999-2003) Welcome Home Ceremony
Courtesy of SAF Medical Corps

​But advances in medicine, professionals’ increasing specialisation, stretched resources, as well as society’s growing expectations of medicine are threatening to sideline humanity. Assoc Prof Chin said, “Sometimes, we forget to ask ourselves, what have these advances achieved? Other than a blood pressure figure and a heart rate, have we lost the person within? In an outcome-driven society, softer skills, which are often difficult to measure, run the risk of being put on the back-burner.”

Celebrating humanity in medicine
That’s why when LKCMedicine first formulated its mission, it was always going to be centred on ‘doctors you and I would like to have caring for us’. “We wanted to be very clear that even in a modern medical school, the basics of the art and science of medicine, coupled with a sense of humility and humanity, still form an integral part,” said Prof Lee, recalling the long process where the School management thought hard about the vision, mission and values it wanted to nurture in its students.

This ethos is present throughout LKCMedicine’s curriculum, to which early and regular patient contact are key. Through early clinical exposure, students learn to interact with patients without being expected to solve medical problems, free to see the encounter through patients’ eyes. Another key component is the long-term patient project where students visit a patient over two years to better understand the environmental factors that may influence his health and attitude towards healthcare.
With the School’s ethos in mind, a team at LKCMedicine decided to celebrate medical efforts that were motivated by empathy and compassion through a unique exhibition. Prof Lee said, “We wanted the School to contribute to the SG50 celebrations and what better contribution than by celebrating the humanitarian efforts of healthcare professionals, in particular those over the last 50 years.”

Developed in collaboration with NTU Museum, the Humanity in Medicine – A Look at the Past and Forward to the Future exhibition was opened on 12 August by Minister of State for Health Dr Lam Pin Min. The opening was attended by some 180 invited guests, members of the healthcare fraternity, students, staff, faculty and senior management from NTU and LKCMedicine at the School’s newly-opened Experimental Medicine Building (EMB).

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Assoc Prof Fatimah Lateef regularly volunteers her time with medical relief missions (Courtesy of Assoc Prof Fatimah Lateef); (Right) Singapore’s early humanitarian efforts were led by institutions like Tan Tock Seng Hospital and St Andrew’s Mission Hospital, pictured here in 1938 (Courtesy of St Andrew’s Mission Hospital​)

The exhibition features photographs, contextual displays and personal accounts. One of the earliest examples is Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), which was founded in 1844 when Chinese businessman Tan Tock Seng bore the cost of constructing a proper building for the then-paupers’ hospital.

Deputy Director and Head of Development & Alumni Relations Ms Suzanne Lim, who directed the project, said, “We want to inspire a new generation to follow in the footsteps of these groups and individuals who brought relief to people in need.”

The exhibition is on display at the EMB until 18 October. As well as organisations, it profiles individuals who have gone beyond the call of duty, such as emergency medicine physicians Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef and Associate Professor Tham Kum Ying, who is also LKCMedicine’s Assistant Dean for Years 3 & 5, as well as former Mercy Relief Chief Executive Hassan Ahmad.

Deputy Director and Head of the Medical Library Ms Caroline Pang, who directed the exhibition with Ms Lim, said, “We hope visitors to the exhibition will be moved by the selflessness and acts of altruism of the people we featured and be encouraged to go the extra mile.”

Nurses and SAF servicemen unload medical supplies and equipment donated to a local hospital in Banda Aceh in January 2005
Courtesy of Assoc Prof Eric Yap

Taking humanity to heart LKCMedicine’s student body, the current torchbearers, has taken this mission to heart. Starting with freshman orientation camp, where students visit residents at All Saints Home, students regularly volunteer in a range of projects here and overseas. They have formed their own group, Tanzanite, to befriend residents of Dover Park Hospice, and set up a group with NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine students that regularly spends time with geriatric patients at TTSH. Overseas projects see students travel around the region, from nearby Batam to Sri Lanka and Cambodia.

Having seen the limited impact of health screenings during previous visits to Batam, Class of 2018 student Ang Wee Kiat was keen to develop a project with lasting impact. He said, “I see a need for sustainability to be built into our project. So we plan to go every three months and focus on health education. We hope that through continuing engagement, we can build stronger relationships with the villagers.”

To bring the exhibition to a wider audience, a mobile version travelled to the Nanyang Auditorium to coincide with the School’s third White Coat Ceremony on 17 August before moving on to schools and hospitals.

To ensure that the exhibition remains accessible to all, Deputy Director and Head of NTU Museum Ms Faith Teh, whose curatorial expertise was central to the project, has plans to convert the physical exhibition into a virtual one. “The virtual exhibition will be hosted on the NTU Museum website, so it can continue to serve as inspiration to the NTU community and beyond.”

Humanity in everyone
Humanity in medicine is found in both big and small acts. For Prof Lee, the healthcare professional who goes on a lifelong mission to help a community in need exemplifies this ethos. “That is someone whom we should all aspire to emulate to whatever degree and in whatever form we are able to,” he said.

But it can also be found in everyday compassionate and empathetic acts. And the School is not short of these – a significant number of faculty, staff and students regularly give their time to humanitarian efforts. Encouraging more to go the extra mile, LKCMedicine Dean Professor James Best urged that we come together to support the simple mission of alleviating suffering. He said, “Those of us working in healthcare have a special duty to make room in our busy days to listen to and understand the individuals who need our help. One of our most important roles is to care and to comfort, to serve with humility and compassion. Only if we do that can we advance the practice of medicine for the good of humanity.”

Class of 2019 student Berwyn Tan, who tutors underprivileged kids at the Salvation Army’s Gracehaven home, learnt this lesson first-hand. Too preoccupied with his own school exams, he dropped off an exam prep sheet for his pupil, but didn’t stay to talk. His pupil’s look of disappointment and sadness is one etched in Berwyn’s mind. He said, “I realised then that even though I may have my homework, I still have a commitment to him and my actions have a bigger impact. So now, even during busy times, I always make time.”

And this is an emotional connection and sense of commitment no machine can offer.

For details about the exhibition, including directions and opening hours, please click here.