It is hard to change preconceptions, especially one that had persisted since 1858. But in the eight years she served as CEO of KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH), Professor Ivy Ng transformed its positioning from an obstetrics and gynaecology specialist to a women’s and children’s hospital offering a holistic range of services, from preventive to tertiary care of complex diseases.
Since becoming group CEO of Singapore Health Services (Singhealth) in 2012, she has managed two hospitals, nine polyclinics and five specialist centres. She also oversees the development of the regional health system in the north-east, which includes the upcoming Sengkang Health hospitals.
Still, the 56-year-old insists on seeing patients, on top of her roles as clinician researcher and educator. “There’s no requirement for me to do that,” she says. “I love medicine and treasure the privilege of impacting patients’ lives directly. This also allows me to keep a finger on the pulse of the organisation.”
This caring nature extends to her management style. She engages staff frequently over issues large or small. As a mother of four young adults, she is especially sensitive to the challenges faced by working mothers. “In my time, we didn’t have flexi-work. If you couldn’t give your 120 per cent, you had to make a choice. It is very sad that many talented colleagues had to choose to give up clinical practice,” she recalls.
Prof Ng, who was Her World Woman of the Year 2011/12, is trying to reduce this waste of talent in an industry where the pace of progress makes it hard for dropouts to re-enter. She personally counsels young women who want to leave due to family commitments, offering them part-time work or job-sharing arrangements. All Singhealth institutions now have childcare facilities. She says: “We need to embrace the fact that marriage and children are part of the equation and look at how to structure jobs and work so that there is sufficient work-life balance.”
It is this genuine concern for people that forms the backbone of her initiatives which aim to change the public’s perception of health care. For instance, she hopes to reverse a worrying trend where patients skip the general practitioner in favour of a specialist, which has led to an unbalanced burden on the system.
Though our health-care system is consistently ranked one of the best in the world, Prof Ng wants to cement its future through creating a culture of “constructive discontentment” that will fuel constant improvements. To that end, Singhealth has developed an academic medical centre with Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School. It also seeks out partners and philanthropic support, with the aim of making advances in medicine so as to prevent diseases, predict their onset, quicken diagnoses, customise treatments, and lower the risk of complications and adverse reactions.
“Her quick thinking and decisive actions reassured our patients and set the tone for how we should react to (the Sars) crisis.”
Professor Kenneth Kwek, who succeeded professor Ivy Ng as CEO of KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital
Above all these undertakings, Prof Ng also chairs the Singapore National Eye Centre (SNEC) Health Endowment Fund and SNEC Health Research Endowment Fund, and sits on the boards of seven organisations. The key to finding balance is prioritisation.
“When my children were young, I continued to work full time. While preparing for my postgraduate exams after my first child, I would find time to study after the ward rounds while fellow colleagues went for coffee breaks. When I was on night duty call, I would try to find time to study so that when I got home, I could make spending time with my son a priority,” recounts Prof Ng, who makes it a point to dine with her family four times a week and travel together once or twice a year.
To ambitious young persons, her advice is this: “Having periods of slight slowdown in the course of your entire career is not a bad thing – I had four such phases! I am a huge advocate of having a strong family life and never delaying marriage or having children because of work. You just have to embrace it, enjoy it, and then come back and be busy again. Take time to enjoy life in its fullness.”