It helps communication with those patients who don’t speak English
DR DANIEL Faulke’s Mandarin may not be perfect, but the fact that he tried to speak it at all helped break the ice between him and his Singaporean patient. The anaesthetist from New Zealand made Mr Bay Kok Seng, 42, laugh with his poor pronunciation as he prepared to remove some screws, put in after an injury, from the patient’s right arm. They had so much fun that Mr Bay found the procedure at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) had raced by before he even had time to be scared.
Dr Faulke, 34, is one of a growing number of foreign doctors in Singapore who are picking up a local language to communicate better with their non-English- speaking patients. He attends four hours of Mandarin classes a week because he feels it is important to be able to communicate with his patients. “It’s important to be able to speak a few words of their language to gain rapport with the patient,” said Dr Faulke, who started working here early this year. His approach is paying off. Mr Bay told The Straits Times he was happy with the doctor’s attempts to speak Mandarin, saying it showed that he cared.
Foreign doctors are here to stay. More than 20 per cent of those practising in Singapore come from abroad. And with two new public hospitals to be set up within a decade, more doctors will be needed than the local system can churn out ? even with the opening of a third medical school at the Nanyang Technological University in 2013. This will bring the number of doctors trained in Singapore to 500 a year. But last year, almost 900 new doctors were employed.
The rising number of foreign doctors has led some patients to complain about communication problems. Most foreign doctors cannot speak Chinese dialects or Malay, so they are not as connected with older, non-English-speaking patients. But hospitals and polyclinics say they cannot do without these foreign doctors, who are well qualified for their jobs. Professor Ng Han Seong, chairman of SGH’s medical board, said foreigners make up less than 10 per cent of its specialists, but they are important in helping the hospital provide a high level of care. Professor Chay Oh Moh, chairman of the division of medicine at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH), where almost one in four doctors is foreign, agreed that the foreign doctors play an important role. She said: “Some of our foreign-trained specialists have helped to develop and lead our capabilities in various clinical specialities and sub-specialities. “They also play a very important role in clinical development, research and medical education.”
When a foreign doctor first arrives at KKH, he is paired with a “buddy” who helps him understand local conditions. Both Prof Ng and Prof Chay say the foreign doctors in their hospitals have assimilated well. Prof Chay added that it is not just the foreign doctors who have integrated well, but also the one-in-three local doctors who were trained overseas. Hospitals and polyclinics get their nurses or health attendants to help translate whenever necessary. This applies also to Singaporean doctors who cannot speak the patient’s language. They also encourage the doctors to pick up some local languages, and arrange for lessons. The most popular are Mandarin and Malay. Dr Faulke’s Mandarin classes are organised by SingHealth. Half of a lesson is on general Mandarin and the other half is based on words and phrases doctors might need, such as when telling a patient to take a deep breath or asking if they feel any pain.
Almost half the doctors at National Healthcare Group Polyclinics studied medicine overseas, although only 20 per cent are foreigners. Today, one in three of its foreign doctors attends language classes - mainly in Mandarin and Malay. Its spokesman added: “Most tend to pick up another language during their daily interactions with their colleagues, which helps them communicate with patients.” Dr Dariusz Olszyna, 40, of the National University Hospital (NUH), already speaks Indonesian, and is now learning Mandarin. But his assimilation goes beyond just speaking the language.
The Dutchman, a specialist in infectious diseases, wanted to “understand what drives people here”. So he lives in Jurong, eats at hawker centres and shops at neighbourhood malls. He said: “After 2 1/2 years here, I feel very much at home.” NUH liver surgeon Krishnakumar Madhavan, who is in his early 50s, took a course in basic Mandarin at Edinburgh University before coming here in 2007 to work. He is originally from South India, so he already speaks Tamil.
Dr Faulke’s fellow anaesthetist, Dr Ted Wong, did one better. He came to Singapore for a one-year stint and now, 15 years later, he is still working at SGH - and is married to a Singaporean. Dr Wong, 45, a Canadian, said he likes the work at SGH, the friends he has made and the local food. And he has started a family here. He added: “Through the years, I have managed to pick up simple phrases in Mandarin, Hokkien, Malay and Tamil from colleagues, friends and patients. This has been useful when I need to provide simple instructions to patients.” Beyond language, some foreign doctors have also set good examples in patient care.
In April, then Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan read out a letter from a man who praised several foreign doctors at Tan Tock Seng Hospital for the care they gave his 89-year-old mother. She had 15 very demanding children, the son wrote in his letter. But the soft skills of the foreign doctors won them over. He praised Dr Pankaj Handa, 51, who came from India nine years ago and has since become a permanent resident, because he “listens, shares his wisdom and knowledge and is decisive”.