​Professor Ivy Ng’s stellar efforts in advancing science, research and innovation have earned her the President’s Science and Technology Medal 2021

Almost four decades ago, Professor Ivy Ng embarked on medicine with the simple purpose of doing good.

“I remember my dad saying, you only have one life, why not spend it helping people and blessing the lives of others? I thought becoming a doctor was an obvious choice for me,” she recalled.

Fast forward to 2021, her career trajectory has skyrocketed in ways that this gregarious paediatrician could never have imagined in the past.

Prof Ng wears many hats—she is the Group CEO of SingHealth, a Clinical Professor at Duke-NUS Medical School and the National University of Singapore, board member on the Duke-NUS governing board and National Medical Research Council (NMRC), and a member on the Human Health and Potential Executive Committee at the National Research Foundation (NRF).

Her work as a clinician, educator, researcher and leader is reflective of her deep passion for improving the medical practice, and she does it through advocating academic medicine (AM) as a means to improving patients’ lives.

"In medicine, we deal with patients’ lives and we must always keep asking ourselves how we can do better for our patients."

It was this spirit that led to Prof Ng receiving the prestigious President’s Science and Technology Medal 2021, the highest accolade reserved for exceptional individuals and teams in science, research and engineering.

Spreading her love of AM organisation-wide

Even before AM was a remote buzzword in the industry, Prof Ng had been an avid researcher on top of her clinical duties.

As a young doctor then, she set out to determine the molecular spectrum of thalassaemia to alleviate clinical burden of care in Singapore, and subsequently founded the National Thalassaemia Registry in 1992. This facilitated proactive screening of families with the thalassaemia gene, accurate genetic counselling and prenatal diagnosis where appropriate.

This was a game changer for the early identification of at-risk couples and resulted in a significant drop in thalassaemia major births here and better treatment protocols and outcomes for those with the condition.

This early success sowed seeds in her mind that perhaps a thriving AM culture could be possible here in Singapore. “Academic medicine is about trying to push the boundaries in medicine. If you think about any area in medicine, there’s still so much we don’t know,” she said.

Making AM a reality in SingHealth

She soon had the opportunity to answer a bigger calling.

“I realised in leadership, you could create the right climate for research, education, and the pursuit of new knowledge. So it excited me that you could have a greater sphere of influence, beyond just running your own research project,” Prof Ng recalled, alluding to her first major management role in 2004, taking over as CEO of KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

Over the past decade, Prof Ng’s spirit of inquiry has spilled over into her position as the SingHealth Group CEO. Since 2012, she has led the group in restructuring and transforming itself for the AM journey, ensuring it has the right infrastructure, support and talent to pursue biomedical research, innovation and education.

In particular, she has been hard at work building up the SingHealth Duke-NUS Academic Medical Centre (AMC), merging the clinical prowess of SingHealth with the academic strength of Duke-NUS Medical School. 

Prof Ng’s drive to transform the paradigm of healthcare in Singapore through AM can be characterised by three key thrusts:

#1 Creating an environment to spur clinical research and innovation

Bringing together two organisations —SingHealth and Duke-NUS Medical School—with vastly different cultures was no walk in the park. Prof Ng and her team, including an AM executive committee, had to first create joint organisational structures to engage everyone and chart progress.

Beyond this, Prof Ng had to introduce the concept of the AMC to some 30,000 employees at SingHealth, aligning everyone with the new goal for the group.

Today, the AMC boasts 15 academic clinical programmes (ACPs), each focusing on a medical specialty, which bring together specialists from different clinical institutions. The formation of SingHealth Duke-NUS Disease Centres (SDCCs) in 13 strategic areas such as genomic medicine and transplant has also been a concerted effort to increase inter-institutional and inter-domain collaborations among clinicians, researchers and educators.

Along the way, the founding of joint institutes like the Academic Medicine Research Institute (AMRI), Academic Medicine Education Institute (AMEI) and Academic Medicine Innovation Institute (AMII) has also been able consolidate the unique expertise of individuals from both SingHealth and Duke-NUS to ignite new and exciting endeavours in furthering the cause of academic medicine.

This isn’t all. The SGH Campus Masterplan is yet another major undertaking that will further SingHealth’s AM objectives. In modernising and expanding the campus, healthcare facilities built around new care models that centre on the patient, will share spaces with research, education and innovation, where bedside-to-bench-to-bedside explorations will be much more seamless and efficient. 

#2 Establishing strategic partnerships

Bridging the gap between academia and clinicians is just one piece of the puzzle. “When we have new discoveries, we need to bring in commercial partners to help us bring these to market so patients can benefit from these,” said Prof Ng.

This is why the AMC has been forging ties with organisations such as the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), universities and start-ups to turn a winning concept into true translation.

#3 Nurturing healthcare and scientific talent

From just “a handful” of clinician-scientists ten years ago, as of end 2020, SingHealth has more than 60 national clinician scientists in its midst and a pipeline of 35 aspirants, along with clinician investigators and innovators, shared Prof Ng.

“Talent development is critical to our success, so we put a lot of effort into how we can nurture clinician-scientists,” she added.

From providing clinicians with protected research time, mentorship by acclaimed researchers and other tools and resources, the support system has grown steadily over the years.

Even if Singapore is just a tiny red dot, Prof Ng started the AM quest with a big ambition. “We always had this big vision to be amongst the global best AMCs,” she shared, and it appears her dream isn’t that lofty after all.

In the last three years running, SGH was ranked among the top 10 World’s Best Hospitals by Newsweek. It was the only Asian hospital to achieve this feat. “We continue to work hard at ensuring that the key ingredients for why we were recognised, which were excellent clinical outcomes, nursing and clinical research, and a strong education program. So we want to continue to see how we can do better in all these areas,” she reflected.

Yet for all her achievements, including her PSTM win, Prof Ng remains humble and motivated to press on. “It's really not me winning it, but this award belongs to the entire team within the SingHealth Duke-NUS AMC,” she said.

“It's been such a great journey together. And it's really a very unexpected surprise to win the award. We win it together and it will spur us on to even greater things in the future.”