Philanthropy goes beyond just raising the dollars.
Dr Tan Hiang Khoon, Senior Consultant and Chair, Division of Surgery, SGH, shares his passion about how harnessing the untapped potential of philanthropy can lead the way to better care.
Dr Tan Hiang Khoon
Chairman, Division of Surgery, SGH
Director, Division of Community Outreach and Philanthropy, NCCS
"For me, philanthropy goes beyond just raising the dollars. It encompasses meaningful contributions in terms of time and energy to create positive impact."
I remember losing my first patient early in my career. She was a six year old girl, who had a rare form of incurable brain tumour. The night that she passed was one of my most unbearable nights. For a long time, I could not forget the echo of her cries of pain.
Later, I came across a young patient with a complicated family background. She was not an easy patient to love – rewarding us with kicks when we tried to treat her. Things changed when I saw her staring intently at another young patient playing with a ‘Tetris’ toy and I borrowed it for her to play with for three days. I noticed the dramatic change to her behavior thereafter where she co-operated with the medical staff during treatment.
She, too, passed on not long after, but I saw the difference a simple gesture of love and support made. I also witnessed first-hand, the pain of parents who lose their children to illness without any support.
These experiences sparked my personal journey in championing philanthropy – I gathered the support of friends and founded the Children’s Cancer Foundation (CCF). My involvement with CCF enriched me more than what I have been able to and could possibly give. It has given me a great sense of purpose and the opportunity to do something really rewarding, over and above my medical career.
"In Singapore, only 20% of the total tax-exempted donations go to healthcare-related causes each year."
For me, philanthropy goes beyond just raising the dollars. It encompasses meaningful contributions in terms of time and energy to create positive impact. The energy that you get from interacting with like-minded people who want to contribute is very positive.
After my CCF experience, it makes sense that I continue to invest time and energy to garner philanthropic support for NCCS since oncology is my clinical specialty and on a broader scale, for Academic Medicine (AM), because it is something I truly believe and have passion in.
For decades, our institutions have provided a high level of clinical services. Shifting gear now to embark on AM certainly requires more resources. We are setting ourselves an even higher bar - to innovate, to do research, to do things better. Philanthropy is the engine that can propel us forward in these efforts.
Tan Tock Seng Hospital and the great Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in the United States - the original and largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School - are examples of healthcare institutions that originated from, and in the case of MGH, are sustained by philanthropy.
In Singapore, only 20% of the total tax-exempted donations go to healthcare-related causes each year. To me, this is a huge opportunity. The question is, how do we harness the potential?
For a start, the greatest challenge in healthcare philanthropy is communicating the immediacy of need to fund research or education. A research laboratory or an education programme may seem very detached from healthcare delivery for some donors. Our job is to help people see the relevance to patient care.
"We also need to change the mindset that philanthropy involves 'begging'."
Ultimately, whatever research we do or knowledge that is imparted to our students/residents, it must benefit our patients and the health of our wider population. Over the last three years, we have gotten better at this, but there is definitely room for improvement.
We also need to change the mindset that philanthropy involves “begging”. The true spirit of philanthropy is about offering a person who has the means, the opportunity to do something meaningful and make an impact. For some, it could be a form of closure after the passing of a loved one and for others it is an expression of gratitude.
To enable more ‘win-win’ partnerships, we also need to create an infrastructure that makes it easy for clinicians to provide this opportunity to potential donors and for donors to respond.
Lastly, we need to approach philanthropy as an exact science. From data analysis and stakeholder engagement to donor stewardship, these are skills that help to maximise the opportunities that we have. We have also not fully explored the use of technology such as online crowd-funding and social media, which would give us a reach beyond what we currently have.
It is time to organise ourselves better. Healthcare philanthropy is part of our common purpose to put patients are at the heart of all we do. It is about articulating how someone with more resources can help another fellow human being with less. It allows us to deliver what matters most to a patient, such as enabling a better quality of life, even when we may not always have the holy grail of a cure.