SINGAPORE - When Associate Professor Tan Thai Lian was a young doctor training to become a geriatric specialist in the mid-1990s, an elderly patient under his care unexpectedly ended his own life.
"This patient was admitted after a fall and had depression. We knew he was depressed but we didn't know he had any intention to take his life, so we did not take suicide precautions," said Prof Tan, 51, who is now deputy chairman of the medical board at Woodlands Health Campus.
"It was a very traumatic experience for me. I felt lost and didn't know what to do."
But the tragic incident became a touchstone moment that cemented Prof Tan's decision to become a geriatrician.
"My mentor, Professor Pang Weng Sun, who was the consultant covering the ward at the time, immediately stepped in to attend to the family members and to assure me that what happened was not my fault. That left a deep impression on me," said Prof Tan.
Prof Tan later went on to head the department of geriatric medicine at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), where he conceptualised and helped establish the division of integrative and community care in 2008. He was also clinical director of Ren Ci Hospital from 2009 to 2013.
Prof Tan and Prof Pang, who is now deputy group chief executive for population health at the National Healthcare Group (NHG), were among the 41 individuals and 13 teams recognised for their contributions to public healthcare at the annual NHG Awards held in Khoo Teck Puat Hospital on Friday (May 24).
Prof Tan was one of four clinicians to receive the NHG Distinguished Achievement Award.
Prof Pang, 59, who was the third doctor in Singapore to specialise in geriatric medicine, received the top accolade - the Lee Foundation's NHG Lifetime Achievement Award, which is given to clinicians who have contributed significantly to elevate the quality of public healthcare in Singapore and the lives of Singaporeans.
The pioneering geriatrician said he became interested in caring for old people after visiting nursing homes regularly as an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore.
Prof Pang said he remains driven by his conviction that healthcare should not only be about patients' physical needs but also their social and emotional needs, as well as that of their loved ones.
"Especially when it comes to end-of-life care, it is very important that the patient has a voice, and that the loved ones can have closure," he said.
Another award recipient was Associate Professor Alan Ng, one of three veteran doctors to receive the Distinguished Senior Clinician Award.
Prof Ng played a key role in setting up the Medical Ambulatory Centre at TTSH in 2015, which is similar to a day-surgery ward but provides non-surgical procedures such as blood transfusions and chemotherapy.
Patients can be treated and discharged within 24 hours instead of being warded, freeing up bed space at the main hospital and cutting waiting time.
Nurses are also trained to perform some procedures, allowing doctors to attend to more urgent cases, said Prof Ng, who is the clinical director at the centre.
The awards were presented by Madam Kay Kuok, who chairs the NHG and was the guest of honour at the event.