Associate Professor Nigel Tan, who was conferred the 2023 National Outstanding Clinician Educator Award, shares the key characteristics of a good educator in healthcare.

Being a good educator is not merely about good teaching, stated Associate Professor Nigel Tan Choon Kiat, Senior Consultant, National Neuroscience Institute (NNI). “It’s about promoting learning through careful application of education theories — learning, psychology and human behaviour, and systems.” He added that being a good educator also means being a fair assessor, being collaborative and collegial with colleagues, and having the humility to receive knowledge and guidance from people with expertise in areas one does not possess.

“Part of me always enjoys the new and the novel,” Assoc Prof Tan shared when asked about why he enrolled in the Masters in Health Professionals Education programme from the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions in 2011.

He was part of the pioneer cohort to take the two-year course. “I felt that the Masters would help me develop a stronger theoretical grounding in education, beyond just being a good teacher.”

The Masters course was challenging for Assoc Prof Tan, who has a biomedical background. “It was hard to embrace the ways of thinking in the social sciences, which a lot of education is grounded in. But the struggle was worth it, as it helped me become a better educator,” he said.

Before the Masters course, Assoc Prof Tan, who is SingHealth’s Group Director of Education (Undergraduate), had already been teaching since he became NNI neurology registrar in 1999; he was one of the first two registrars hired in NNI. “The learning environment in NNI was — and still is — wonderful,” he said. “What I really enjoyed was the peer learning between neurology and neurosurgery.”

What inspired him to go deeper into medical education was an exemplary teacher. “One of the reasons why the learning in NNI was so rich was because we had Associate Professor Loong Si Chin (above, right) as our teacher,” shared Assoc Prof Tan. He described the late Assoc Prof Loong, who passed away in 2022, as someone who was superb at making the complex appear simple. “That ability to explain things simply and clearly was so helpful for all of us.” Prof Loong also exemplified the values of a good educator — he was always patient, a good listener, lifelong learner, and took on a collegial approach in education. “I know I was definitely inspired by him to become an educator, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.” When asked if he and his team ever feel the weight of teaching the next generation of healthcare professionals, Assoc Prof Tan said: “It is a duty for all of us in the public sector. Despite these responsibilities, our healthcare educators have risen to the task.” He affirmed that SingHealth is doing well in providing effective education “in terms of the number of learners who come through our doors, and the positive feedback we get”.

However, there are areas that need work. “Managing faculty’s education and clinical workload, better embodying clinical competencies and educator values, being more interprofessional in our education practice, reinforcing educator identity, and strengthening our educator community of practice — these would be my goals in my current role,” he said. It is no wonder that Assoc Prof Tan went into healthcare, under the positive influence of his parents, who are a now-retired general practitioner and midwife. “Healthcare offered a chance to engage the head and heart, to meld art and science to help people,” he said. “This seemed to my 19-year-old self to be a pretty good basis to build one’s life upon.”

What about picking neurology as his specialty? “There was a geeky intellectual aspect to neurology that appealed to me, and making a diagnosis with complex patients was exciting,” said Assoc Prof Tan. At the time, neurology was transitioning from an “all diagnosis, no treatment” specialty to one with new and exciting treatments that will help patients. “This made our work very meaningful.” At home, Assoc Prof Tan has a valuable partner in life. “My wife is a surgeon-educator who is in SingHealth, too. We often have interesting discussions about education,” he quipped. Together, they have three children. “We are quite a geeky family with eclectic interests; dinner discussions often span a variety of topics including pop culture, linguistics, food, sociology, marketing, and more. I learn quite a lot from my children, too.” A self-confessed nerd, Assoc Prof Tan said that, had he not become a doctor, he would have enjoyed being a music or film critic. He also believes in the benefits of exercise. “I find exercise to be tremendously helpful in managing work stress. I go running or brisk walking with a weighted vest, combined with some light resistance exercises a few times a week. It’s amazing how solutions appear when your brain gets flooded with endorphins.”

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