Changi General Hospital CEO Ng Wai Hoe with robots that are used in the hospital.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Professor Ng Wai Hoe stepped up from being medical director of the National Neuroscience Institute (NNI) to become chief executive-designate of Changi General Hospital (CGH) in the midst of the circuit breaker lockdown in 2020.

The Covid-19 situation had improved slightly by the time his new posting became official two months later on July 1, though an unprecedented coronavirus war was surely not the best start to a new role.

And that was what he told Singapore's director of medical services (DMS) Kenneth Mak at the time.

"He asked me how things were… I told him it's not exactly the best time to have a major move, with Covid-19. And then he told me, 'Don't talk to me about it', because he became DMS when Covid-19 hit," says Prof Ng with a laugh.

"I guess it's also a matter of perspective when we think things are bad."

Nearly 16 months into his CEO role, Prof Ng spoke to The Straits Times via Zoom about how his baptism of fire has been so far.

The seasoned neurosurgeon has had his hands full, from motivating and caring for the staff to learning about the organisation, to meeting key people in the more than 6,000-strong institution, while building on current and new strengths.

With Covid-19 still the immediate focus as Singapore moves to an endemic phase, Prof Ng says they do have to "fight battles on multiple fronts, and take a medium- to long-term view of the world", as they formulate plans for the next three, five or 10 years.

Currently, people with Covid-19 are still flooding its emergency department, though with full vaccination, the disease can be treated like the common cold, he says.

"We are perhaps a victim of our own success because in the past year of Covid-19, the public message... has been to go get an MC or see a doctor," he adds. "Now it is: 'Don't see a doctor, stay at home'. It will take a bit of time for people to accept that."

While the pandemic continues its disruption, it has also spurred the implementation of some initiatives at the hospitals. For instance, CGH's home delivery scheme was pushed out in a big way this year, so patients can go home after seeing a doctor and have their medication delivered to their home in a day or two, says Prof Ng.

With its Centre for Healthcare Assistive and Robotics Technology, CGH is also big on robotics, automation and innovation.

A key challenge for Prof Ng is to make innovation part of the DNA of the organisation. At the same time, CGH is also going into non-traditional research areas that will help extend its reach in the community.

From January 2022, it will take over the care of the people incarcerated at Changi Prison, Prof Ng says.

"We think that rehabilitation means that on release, you will become gainfully employed, but it's more than that. It is actually (about) becoming healthy… because if you're not healthy, you're not going to get a job."

CGH doctors are also collaborating with MP for East Coast GRC Jessica Tan to look into how to develop dementia-friendly neighbourhoods in Simei, he says.

It is about making sure green spaces are well used by the elderly, about designing precincts that facilitate someone with memory issues to navigate through, for instance.

"These are some of the areas that we can do a lot of research on, that we have traditionally not (done so) because we have just been too confined to think of ourselves as a hospital," says Prof Ng.

There are also plans to set up "hip" dementia-friendly cafes in the community, where people can attend talks on dementia.

Prof Ng continues to do neurosurgery, though a lot less than before, given his CEO work. One of his patients, on hearing about his move to CGH, remarked that he was headed for the "Cannot Go Home" hospital.

"But how can you 'cannot go home' from surgery… Our mortality rates are no different from other hospitals," says Prof Ng. The 1,000-bed hospital would run out of beds in a day if people cannot go home, he adds.

"It's definitely untrue, but somehow perception is always 'reality'... And some of our staff believe the narrative so, therefore, it was about building confidence, looking at our branding, reputation."

There is enough work to excite him. You would not have guessed that he not only did not plan on entering healthcare management but also regretted it after doing so, albeit not for long.

"Science really excites me because I always felt that it's very measurable… But what is it that defines you as a good administrator? I felt that it was a bit subjective and in those days, I was very analytical," says Prof Ng, who had transitioned into management at NNI.

For three years there, he grappled with his decision. "I had flashbacks. I asked myself many times: What if I have not done this... Sometimes, when you read about the successes of researchers, you may think, 'Could that have been me?'"

He says he has found peace, as well as meaning and purpose in his work.

Besides, "work also needs to be interesting and challenging. Otherwise, I would get bored", he says. "Now I live my aspirations through helping other people to be successful in their research careers.

"How can we put in place systems and structures to help people who are interested to be successful so that they can live their dreams, even though I didn't live mine?"

Prof Ng says he has found peace, as well as meaning and purpose in his work. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

More than an hour into the interview, Prof Ng tells this reporter that his communications person, who is in our Zoom meeting, "will scold him" if he does not get to the topic of robotics and smart technology - the pride of CGH - soon.

Various types of robots, including service robots that help with logistics and social robots that help lead group therapy sessions, are used in the hospital.

"Our philosophy of developing robotics, automation and innovation and AI (artificial intelligence) technologies is to take away a lot of mundane, routine tasks," Prof Ng says.

"When we are too busy, we may not have time to communicate as much, so that is the paradox of robotics. We want to use more and more robots so that healthcare becomes a lot more humanised."

Driving innovation entails putting in place various schemes to encourage ideas, and the hospital has put together a committee to decide on innovative technological ideas that deserve the grants, though Prof Ng had not planned on having a committee.

He was comfortable with just the peer review process. "My view was to trust the collective wisdom, trust the process… I don't need to get involved and furthermore, I free up my time for coffee, but I was overruled lah," he says, without revealing who had overruled him.

"You know, people always say the CEO stops me from doing things, but here, I'm more radical and you all stop me from doing things!"

Prof Ng felt that it was not just about the grants or the capability but "about culture-building".

Smart hospitals are on the rise, and CGH is one of them. This year, CGH was ranked 32nd out of 250 hospitals - and top in Singapore - in the World's Best Smart Hospitals survey by Newsweek magazine.

These are hospitals - Mayo Clinic in the United States is No. 1 - that lead in their use of smart technologies, with the evaluation process including recommendations from experts familiar with smart hospitals.

CGH is also undergoing a massive remodelling exercise to meet future needs, having officially opened in 1998. Like other public hospitals here, it will have to adapt to more of a population health model of care, though CGH may have had a head start. "Importantly, population health is about engaging the community, and we have done that for the last decade," says Prof Ng.

He also wants to foster the CGH culture in a way that will stand the test of time.

"The reality of a good leader is that you can leave tomorrow and nobody will miss you," he says. "You don't want people to miss you because if you have led your organisations well, people don't miss you. And that is success."