For almost two weeks — 18 to 29 April, a team from the Study Trips for Engagement and EnRichment (STEER) programme were in China, travelling to Guangxi and Yunnan where they observed first-hand the daily operations of hospital staff and visited China's developed and developing communities. Comprising students from the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, NUS Dentistry — who were taking part in STEER for the first time, NUS Social Work and NUS Global Studies, the team returned with a gamut of experiences and a better understanding of healthcare practices and challenges faced by the communities and professionals in the midst of transformation.
Their first destination was Guangxi’s Gui Gang City People’s Hospital (GCPH) helmed by Dr Tan Hai Tao, President of GCPH. Some 30 years ago, GCPH was a basic healthcare institution with Dr Tan as the only surgeon in the orthopaedics department. Things changed when Dr Tan came to Singapore Changi General Hospital (CGH) for a three-month training stint. This experience sparked him to push GCPH into a premier tertiary hospital in the region. Now, it has over 2,000 beds and has even published a pioneering book on 3D printing in orthopaedic surgery.
More than 120 of GCPH’s doctors and nurses have undergone training in Singapore under a partnership with the National University Health System and CGH. Delegations of Singaporean doctors and nurses have also visited GCPH. In appreciation of Singapore’s contribution, and as a symbol of the unique bilateral partnership, the hospital named the compound at the heart of the complex, “Singapore Garden”.
“We were heartened to find the doctors at GCPH welcoming and nurturing, providing us with many opportunities to learn and patiently explaining their processes and ways of thinking to us. It gave us new insight into the work of surgeons and the medical context in China. As GCPH continues to grow, we can look forward to an even closer collaboration between our two countries. GCPH has kindly invited NUS medical students to be attached there as interns during our medical electives,” said Year 2 NUS Medicine student Tan Wei Quan.
Their next stop was Weizhou Island in Guangxi. Formed after a volcanic eruption, it was a quiet fishing village turned bustling tourist destination with a population of about 16,500. Staying in a traditional farmhouse-style bed and breakfast, the students learnt from the farm owner that citizens had initially focused on planting bananas and rice. However, they faced insurmountable hurdles when trying to enter these markets, like rat infestations and fierce competition from banana farmers worldwide. Hence the township directed efforts to enhance the tourist trade instead. For the STEER team, this was a lesson on the strategic importance of economic transformation and how it affects employment.
At the Island’s small 20-bed township hospital, the team heard from Dr Sheun, the hospital director, of their difficulties in recruiting doctors as many do not think the island offers enough opportunities. Dr Sheun also shared how they have changed from focusing on surgery to prevention and control of diseases. In the past, emergency surgeries for appendicitis and caesarean births were common in the hospital. This changed with the advent of high-speed ferries and helicopter evacuation, and booming tourist numbers.
“This is a far-sighted practice — leveraging on modernisation in transportation and telemedicine, as well as handling the increase in diseases such as hypertension and diabetes,” commented Year 2 NUS Global Studies student Shawn Ten.
The team also learnt how the Island deals with the dental needs of the community. “It was surprising that despite there being no shortage of patients requiring dental treatment, the clinic had no local dental surgeons. Surgeons from Bei Hai Hospital came on rotation in order to provide for the dental needs of the community there. This was an eye-opener for me and challenged me to rethink how community healthcare is provided and practised,” said Year 1 NUS Dentistry student Joel Alex Lee.
Their final destination was Lijiang in Yunnan, where they learnt more about Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) climbing Yu Long Xue Shan (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain), the highest mountain in Yunnan. As the risk of AMS increases from 3,500m above sea level, the students climbed to 3,800m above sea level to gain first-hand experience on the presentation and management of the sickness. They saw some tourists carrying hand-held oxygen tanks — 150ml oxygen tanks which could only provide temporary relief. “This caused us to reflect if there were certain practices or policies in our hospital and healthcare system that, like this oxygen tank, do not address the root cause of the problem,” recounted Year 4 NUS Medicine student Gordon Wong.
The students felt privileged to be able to witness and experience some of China’s changing landscape first-hand. “We are happy to know that Singapore has played a small part in GCPH’s expansion. We met people who are geared to change as they grow their trade; balancing tradition and transformation. In application back to Singapore, we want to continue to reflect and ask ourselves about our transformation decisions, and how we envision the future of Singapore,” said Shawn.
By Gordon Wong, Year 4 NUS Medicine student and Shawn Ten, Year 2 NUS Global Studies student