​The OPE team at SGH boasts of a unique team of 9 Senior Patient Experience Managers (SPEMs). Being retired nurse managers, these golden girls bring with them a vast wealth of knowledge and experience to share. Sister Phuah Gaik Kheng is one of them. Here is her story.

Tell us about your nursing background

I first trained and worked in the UK for 11 years, in psychiatry, critical care and emergency medicine. When I retired in SGH, I was Senior Nurse Manager in the Emergency Department. I became a SPEM in 2020 when I turned 67.

What do you do as a SPEM?

I cover the ED, where I spend a few hours a day – at the ambulance porch, walking around the waiting areas, etc. I also handle feedback cases, making phone calls to people who write in about their experience in the ED.

ED is challenging because emotions run very high. It's been reported that ED and ICU are where healthcare workers are most at risk of facing abuse. The long wait time, especially for P3 and P4 patients who are not acute cases, adds to the crowding and tension all round. Many of the junior nurses cope by not looking up. Catch the eyes and they will swarm around you, asking "When will I be seen?"

How does your nursing background help?

It's easier to build rapport with the HOD, as well as clinicians and the nurses. But I make it a point to ask every time, "Is there a case I can help with?" They also have my mobile number – they will call me if they need help and I'm not there. I will attend to the patient or NOK and hear them out, freeing up the ED colleagues.

Most of the time, the problem is simply a miscommunication, or a wrong choice of word. Or poor bedside manners, like spending more time on the screen than looking at the patient. For example, when they ask "Why are you here?" that usually upsets the patient. When I counsel them, "Next time don't say that, say this" they are quite grateful.

Life experience helps, to be able to put yourself in others' shoes. For example, having been an NOK to a loved one in ICU, I know how stressful it is. So when I was working in the ICU, I would always visit the NOK waiting room at the start of the night shift to introduce myself and check on them.

How do you destress?

After a bad round of berating or if the other party is really unreasonable, I do feel disheartened. I will hang up the phone and let it all out - "This person is cr*$9y!" So it helps to have understanding and encouraging colleagues around. In the beginning, the SPEMs used to go out for a good meal whenever one of us have had a bad day. But we started putting on weight so …

Somedays, I let go at the husband as soon as I get into the car. "Don't tell me! I told you not to take the job!" is his response.

I've learnt to pat myself on the back – "you did good today."

Has being a SPEM changed you?

No lah, at my age, I don't think I can change …

(By the end of the interview) I think I have changed. I was really arrogant, as an SNM. I would find fault, sometimes in a sarcastic way. We were trained to think that tough love is the way to teach the juniors well. I reflect now, and wonder "Why did I behave like that?"

After becoming a SPEM, I have learnt to be more humble. I've also learnt that when we are kind, others will be kind to us.  Most of all, I'm just grateful to be able to continue to contribute my experience and knowledge to make a day better.

SNM Gaik Kheng's tips for other OPE colleagues…

1. Be careful with your choice of words

Offer information, don't just brush them off. Instead of saying "You just have to wait lor!", tell them how many patients are in the queue, or offer an explanation like "a few ambulance cases just came in."

2. Be proactive

Watch out for signs of anxiety in the waiting area and offer help. In this way, you nip problems in the bud. I make myself visible, introducing myself as "I'm Sister Phuah, can I help you with anything?"

If the patient is in pain, I would alert the clinical staff to address that first. Often, patients just want their presence to be acknowledged. I will reassure them, tell them the queue or wait status and just offer them a blanket or a hot drink. Often they are grateful to be attended to even though they still have to wait.

If the patient is in resuscitation, I will try to keep the NOKs in the waiting area updated. It's the hardest when staff need to break bad news. I will join them to offer support to the colleagues as well as the NOKs.

3. Always do your homework before calling

When you have to call a feedback case, make sure you do your homework. Gather and know all the facts. Otherwise you will be easily challenged and lose credibility and confidence, making it harder to close the case. I also take a deep breath and say a little prayer before I call.

4. Just listen

For the first call, just listen, let them have their say, even if they take it out on you and the call goes on and on. Interrupt them and you will get "You are not listening to me!" If need to, eat humble pie and apologise - "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that." Tell them, "Let me find out." Or "let me get back to you." This paves the way for the second call, when they are more open to hearing us and are more ready to close the case. 

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