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Research – the past, present and future

​As healthcare needs become more complex, how can SingHealth ensure that we are continuously providing a better tomorrow with the best outcomes for our patients?

Our answer was Academic Medicine (AM), a transformational journey that SingHealth has embarked on since the early 2000s to advance healthcare through the integration of the three pillars of medicine – clinical care, education and research. With AM, our clinicians and faculty are better able to deliver timely, affordable and improved care to our patients through research, innovation, teaching, and learning.

The SingHealth Duke-NUS Academic Medical Centre (AMC) harnesses the collective strengths of SingHealth’s clinical expertise with Duke-NUS’ medical education and research capabilities. This strategic partnership was formalised with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on 29 May 2014.  

      Clinical research coordinator from Investigational Medicine Unit executing protocol-based research procedures.

In our next MedSG200 series, we’ll learn more about our pursuit of AM through the three pillars. First, we’ll delve into the world of research – the key to pushing the boundaries of medicine and improving patient care!

Research: Increasing Capabilities and Building Strengths

In the 1960s-1980s, research was done at various individual and institutional levels, mostly to gain new knowledge and find solutions. But as biomedical research became a national priority in the 1990s in Singapore and AM grew in importance in our AMC in the 2000s, our research started to take shape and progress quickly, with the aim of translating research from bench to bedside and improve care outcomes.

However, a journey of growth is often laced with challenges. Associate Professor Tan Say Beng, SingHealth’s Group Chief Research Officer, shares that early-stage researchers often faced a lack of funding and protected time for their research projects. To address these issues and develop our research scene, active steps were taken.

For example, the Government introduced national grants to fund biomedical research in Singapore. Over the years, our AMC too offered internal grants and seed funding, many of which are for early-stage researchers, as well as raised funds to supplement the national funding.

Our leadership recognised the importance of having clinician scientists in our ecosystem, who are key in conducting research that can be translated into practical clinical applications. They showed strong support towards national clinician scientist schemes, such as the Clinician Scientist Award, and allocated protected time for clinician scientists to focus on research. As of end 2020, our AMC alone accounts for more than half the national target of clinician scientists in Singapore.

Clinician scientists from the SingHealth Duke-NUS AMC – (from left to right) Assoc Prof Charles Chuah from Singapore General Hospital, Assoc Prof Darren Lim from National Cancer Centre Singapore and Assoc Prof Ong Sin Tiong from Duke-NUS

With the right support, funding and collaborations, our community of clinician scientists, scientists and researchers today are well-positioned to make scientific discovery, find care solutions, and do research that impacts patients both locally and beyond.

Research: Standing On The Shoulders of Giants

For AM to continue flourishing, it is important that new and younger researchers can learn from their predecessors. Over the years, many research giants have emerged and poured in time and effort into mentorship.

Professor Wong Tien Yin, SingHealth’s Deputy Group Chief Executive Officer for Research and Education, shares that his decision to be a clinician-scientist and pursue a research career was based on a mentor’s encouragement and guidance. Looking back, Prof Wong says that research has certainly taken big strides from being “good to have” to becoming an essential and integral part of healthcare.

Other big names include Professor Stuart Alexander Cook, Tanoto Foundation Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at our AMC and Senior Consultant with the Department of Cardiology at the National Heart Centre Singapore and Professor Aung Tin, Group Director for Research (Scientific), Deputy Medical Director (Research) of the Singapore National Eye Centre and Executive Director of Singapore Eye Research Institute. Prof Cook’s research focuses on cardiovascular genetics and genomics while Prof Aung’s research interest lies in angle-closure glaucoma and glaucoma genetics.
Learning from their own journeys, these mentors are now paving the way for a new chapter of research by nurturing the next generation of clinicians and scientists. While the start of a research journey can often be daunting, a good mentor not only helps put perspective into the work, but steers the direction of the project too.

Research: Passing On The Baton

Dr Judith Wong is a Consultant for the Children’s Intensive Care Unit in KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital.
Dr Judith Wong is a Consultant for the Children’s Intensive Care Unit in KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

As we look to the future, all eyes are on the up-and-coming younger researchers. One name to look out for is Dr Judith Wong from KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital. In 2019, her work in paediatric acute respiratory distress syndrome won her the MOH Scholarship for Research. To Dr Judith, this is a reflection of the scientific community’s acceptance of her work, which is encouraging as she works towards enhancing clinical practice for the betterment of patients’ lives.

For research to flourish, Dr Judith hopes to see the research community become more open, collaborative, and closer-knit to better support one another.   

Image: Clinical Associate Professor Hairil Abdullah
Clinical Associate Professor Hairil Abdullah

Clinical Associate Professor Hairil Rizal Bin Abdullah, Director for Perioperative Services at Singapore General Hospital, where he is also a Senior Consultant for the Department of Anaesthesiology, embodies the saying ‘be the change you want to see’. He saw the need for a perioperative research programme locally and decided to play his part by kickstarting one.

“The aim is to create a more research-friendly ecosystem for the next generation of perioperative medicine researchers so that the research output could be amplified as a group.” 
- Clinical Associate Professor Hairil Abdullah 

Dr Hairil used to be the only person in the programme but in just five years, the programme now boasts of 10 members, $1.7 million in funding and a large electronic data registry.

The Way Forward

As the nation continues to embrace biomedical research, and with many budding young researchers stepping into the scene, the future of research is bright and exciting. At the SingHealth Duke-NUS Academic Medical Centre, we are well-placed to see the translation of research and innovation into direct clinical care – impacting not just Singapore but the region and beyond.