April 2017 | Issue 29
Associate Professor Kwek Tong Kiat: Embracing life-long learning

Sean Firoz_Byline (Custom).jpgBy Sean Firoz, Senior Executive, Communications & External Relations

1 - Main photo to be etched (Custom).jpgAs a young medical student, Kwek Tong Kiat was in his own words a “mugger”. Indeed, among his peers, he had a reputation for possessing the best lecture notes. Now, as the newly appointed Assistant Dean for Admissions at LKCMedicine, Associate Professor Kwek sits on the other side – setting the standards for admissions and selection to the School.

Leading him to this appointment is a career marked by dedication to continuous learning and a willingness to serve.

Choosing an area of need

Graduating at a time when Singapore faced a shortage of doctors in specialties like anaesthesia, Assoc Prof Kwek decided to match his personal interest in anatomy and physiology with a nationwide area of need.

“While doing the rotations during my housemanship, I found that I was drawn more to an area in medicine which is more hands-on.” said Assoc Prof Kwek, who is also a Senior Consultant with the Department of Anaesthesiology, Intensive Care & Pain Management at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH).

“I was more inclined to do anaesthesia as it offers direct patient care,” added Assoc Prof Kwek, who spends most of his time in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), caring for patients with challenging needs who come in at odd hours of the day.

After receiving his Master of Medicine in Anaesthesiology in 1995, he had the opportunity to do his subspecialty training in Critical Care Medicine at the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, USA. With a wife, a five-month-old daughter, and two- and five-year-old sons in tow, Assoc Prof Kwek uprooted his family to Minnesota for a year.

“It was quite a challenge having my family go with me half way across the world for a year. But we had a good time there,” he said.

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Assoc Prof Kwek doing his rounds in the ICU, treating patients that come in at odd hours of the day

What was just a typical clinical fellowship became a learning journey for him. From similar medical practices and diseases to the different ways the doctors and patients communicate, Assoc Prof Kwek learnt much from the American medical system.

“I’ve found out during my training that it validated the high standards of medical education and training in Singapore,” said Assoc Prof Kwek. “It was gratifying to know that we were all trained well back in Singapore and were able to fully benefit from the Mayo Clinic as if we were local residents or fellows there.”

Besides treating patients, Assoc Prof Kwek made the most of being somewhere new. Having the opportunity to enjoy all four seasons, as well as taking trips out to the big national parks, he tried his best to balance work and life in a foreign country.

“Because we were there for a short time, we tried very hard to make the most of what we had in terms of time and opportunity,” said Assoc Prof Kwek.

When he returned to Singapore, he picked up his role as part of the neurosurgical ICU team and anaesthesiology department at TTSH.

However, just a few years later, tragedy struck. The SARS outbreak blighted the lives of Singaporeans, and the ICU team.

Volunteer at a time of need

It was a tough time for the staff of TTSH as the number of SARS patients surged day by day. As the medical ICU team began to struggle with the rapidly growing number of patients, members of the neurosurgical ICU team including Assoc Prof Kwek volunteered to help.

But behind the heroic acts of the ICU teams was a fear that the personal protective gear and N95 masks were not enough to protect against the disease.

“At the time while we were in the middle of it, the fear factor was definitely there, and at the back of our minds I think we were always a bit worried about contracting the disease,” said Assoc Prof Kwek.

The SARS period was also a lonely time. In addition to walking through deserted hospital corridors, Assoc Prof Kwek decided to quarantine himself from his family by staying in a rented apartment, only coming out to go to the hospital for work.

The whole experience is one that remains vivid in his mind. “From that experience, I learnt that the success of healthcare is not dependent on the efforts of one individual, but rather the collective effort of the whole team, including doctors, nurses, therapists and even the cleaners. Everyone has a role to play, whether it’s big or small,” said Assoc Prof Kwek.

Inspiring future doctors

To help ensure that anaesthesiology won’t face another shortage of doctors, Assoc Prof Kwek has long been involved in post-graduate specialist training as well as supervising undergraduate students during their clinical attachments.

However, in 2011, LKCMedicine offered a new opportunity to expand his undergraduate teaching by taking the lead for its cardiorespiratory block.

Having now taught all four cohorts of LKCMedicine students, every year has been a learning journey, especially when students ask questions that stump him. But honesty is the best policy, says Assoc Prof Kwek, who would do his own “mugging” and get back to them.

Last year, Assoc Prof Kwek took on a fresh challenge as Assistant Dean of Admissions at LKCMedicine, after his predecessor retired. While he may now be the one testing others, he too has more to learn.

“I’m beginning to understand that there is a lot more research going on to identify or select the new students who are most appropriate for our School,” said Assoc Prof Kwek, when asked about his role.

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As Assistant Dean for Admissions, Assoc Prof Kwek (pictured here at the recent NTU Open House) regularly gives talks about the School’s curriculum to potential students and their parents

Having spent a lot of time talking to students in various Junior Colleges, he now has a better understanding of what students are interested in these days, especially when it comes to the unique method of teaching at LKCMedicine.

With that knowledge, Assoc Prof Kwek aims to find ways to fine-tune the selection process for future students applying to LKCMedicine.

On his experience at the young medical school, Assoc Prof Kwek said, “It has been a learning journey from developing the curriculum and teaching the students. It has been an interesting time at LKCMedicine, and it feels like I am able to contribute to the education of the next generation of students, who hopefully will be better doctors than we are today.”

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​​Assoc Prof Kwek and his family on holiday in Cappadocia, Turkey