By Prof Christopher Cheng
Pro-tem Chief Executive Officer, Sengkang Health

In some ways, I'm still in my first job. Some 30-odd years ago, I was training as a physician in the old Bowyer block.   Today I belong to a community of veteran healthcare practitioners.   We have made the observation that our healthcare system has evolved into one that is technically correct but emotionally detached.

In our excellence, we have forgotten that the provision of healthcare is much more than clinical quality.   As Singapore comes up against the challenge of caring for an aging population with its complex health issues, there is an urgency to alter the healthcare landscape.   All the stakeholders – users, providers, frontline staff, administrators, policy makers – need a transformative mindset change to support the Singapore of the future.

We will never know what real help someone needs unless we establish a good relationship beyond giving a trained medical solution.

Ageing is an organic challenge. Healthcare conditions need to stay flexible to adapt to constant changes in individual patients' motivation, their family and social circumstances, as well as the needs of their combined chronic illnesses.   Paternalistic and specialised approaches of solving illnesses are slowly becoming less effective.

At Sengkang Health (SKH) we want to treat patients as close acquaintances: to listen for the stories behind their song.   What are their true wishes?   What worries them most?    Because therein lies their real problems.   The cancer, the diabetes, the hypertension – these are but the tip of the iceberg. We will never know what real help someone needs unless we establish a good relationship beyond giving a trained medical solution.

The time has also come to recognise that healthcare professionals are like an F1 pit crew, where everybody has an essential role, instead of the overly-simplified ideology of a head physician leading a team.

If you experience the healthcare process as a patient, you will see how it takes every one of us, experts in our own fields, from admission counter, to clinics, to operating theatre and recovery rooms, to create the village that supports our patients in their healthcare journeys.  And it’s becoming more pertinent that healthcare should go beyond the hospital into the community. 

At Sengkang Health (SKH) we want to treat patients as close acquaintances : To listen for the stories behind their song.

Leading the dance is not us, but our patients, because they are the ones who know the story behind their song.   By listening to their stories, we learn how to help them in a way that’s meaningful. We must educate ourselves on how to communicate with them beyond the solution-dispensing practice of medicine.

People ask :  Why are we doing all these when we don't even have a hospital yet? (editor’s note: Sengkang Hospitals is slated to open in 2018)

It's never too early.   Putting our tagline, “healthy living, fulfilling life”, into practice is much harder than printing the same tagline thousands of time.   It takes time to internalise.   We need resilience and humility to acknowledge that sickness and death is part of living, so we can help patients live fulfilling and dignified lives, reaching out when necessary, so we do the right thing by the patients' goals and wishes.

In our interaction with the people we serve, we should ask: How far have we come in our personal mastery?   What is our goal and motivation in serving, other than putting bread on the table? What is our higher aspiration and passion?   Do we have a more sustainable purpose for serving, beyond ourselves?

During the long weekend of Chinese New Year, there was a record surge in admission. How many more beds will we have to build before it is “enough?”   It’s becoming clear to me that building and sustaining more hospital beds can lead to an addiction of simply providing technical, quick solutions to diseases.

Patients don’t seem to have sufficient available care in their community.   This is a stark, sad reminder of what we have come to, and it really singes me.   How can we help the community understand that we have to work at this together and that healthcare is not merely a problem for the Ministry of Health to solve?

We are all beginners in this together. I, too, am trying to understand this new universe of nursing homes, community hospitals, and the trials and tribulations of primary healthcare.

I've never aspired to be a CEO, but it is good to know we have so much ahead of us to achieve and that there will never be a dull moment in SKH.