​Peter Lee was going to train as a marine engineer but could not resist the call of social work.  

Peter Lee, Master Medical Social Worker (MSW), began his career in 1967 at another hospital, developing services for patients with mental health illnesses, leprosy and tuberculosis, the three most socially stigmatised diseases with little to no resources and support back then. In 1992, SGH recruited him to helm Medical Social Services. This marked the beginning of a 29-year career with SGH.

Peter has been integral in establishing guidelines for financial assistance, discharge care planning and psychosocial support, which have now become the backbone of medical social services.

Peter explains: ‘This is our role: to give all kinds of support for patients to get the kind of treatment that is conducive for them. We always remember that they have their own lives to get back to. Our goal is that they should be able to function again.’

A large part of the work involves thinking and planning ahead on the patient’s behalf, especially for those who have no one at home to help them, or those who come from financially challenging backgrounds.

Whilst he was a first-year student in Marine Engineering at Singapore Polytechnic, he had volunteered at the Chinese YMCA where he met a social worker, the brother of Professor Khoo Oon Teik, founder of the National Kidney Foundation:

‘I was quite taken with his work, so I quit Marine Engineering and went to study Social Work at the University of Singapore. I was 23 years old.’

The practical, administrative aspects of the MSW’s responsibilities towards patients come up again and again during the interview. MSWs have to try their best to understand patients’ needs and do everything possible, from writing papers to fundraising to setting up procedures, to help them. Peter shares an example:

‘Around 1994 or 1995, we had to raise funds to buy medication for children suffering from Thalassaemia Major. Desferal was a very expensive and non-standard drug then, but it spared the children from undergoing frequent blood transfusions. We needed about $100,000 each year so I worked with Professor Tan Cheng Lim, Head of Paediatrics, and we put up a paper to the relevant authorities to get the needed funding. Today, Desferal is available for needy patients.’

When patients are uncooperative, there might very well be a reasonable cause for their behaviour. This was what Peter learnt during his first posting as MSW to another hospital in the 1970s:

‘The whole hospital was a tuberculosis hospital at the time, and we saw a lot of very poor patients. The treatment took at least six months. When the drugs became more effective, the patients didn’t have to stay for so long but they refused to leave because they had very nourishing food in the hospital! So we started a Samaritan fund to help them and a rations distribution outlet to give them some basic food supplies to take home with them.’

Peter’s work also includes speaking up for patients who have somehow fallen by the wayside in terms of subsidies for their treatment. He gives the example of leukaemia patients:

‘In the past, there was no subsidised treatment for leukaemia patients. We proposed a scheme to the relevant authorities, and after persisting and engaging in talks, eventually, every patient who cannot afford private treatment can go for subsidised care.’

MSWs act as advocates for patients, petitioning and negotiating on their behalf.

These two aspects of his work as a MSW—petitioning for others and planning of resources—are also central to his management style. Peter is enthusiastic about staff well-being and professional development:

‘While we do a lot of things for the patients, sometimes we forget about our staff. The staff have their needs too. We were the first hospital to start a counselling service for staff in 1994.’

His concern for his staff, like his concern for his patients, is expressed pragmatically. He has worked hard to secure funding to send them for further education as well as to improve their department’s infrastructure, so that the working environment is more conducive.

What has sustained him all these years is his ‘motivation to want to help people, to want to be there for those who are less fortunate.’ He looks happy when he says he is prepared to carry on working as long as he can still walk:

‘My wife has retired, but I want to carry on!’

Excerpt is from Volume Two of SGH’s commemorative book “Sanctuary and Stronghold: SGH at 200”, authored by Dr Yeo Wei Wei. Read more stories from the book here

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