There is an unflappable calm about Mr Peter Lee Lian Heng, Master Medical Social Worker (MSW) at SGH for over 29 years.
‘Working in healthcare can be quite, quite stressful. It’s about your commitment to patient care,’ he says when asked what is most essential to success in his line of work. ‘Your concern for the patient must be there. And the other thing, of course, is to be open, objective, and to n ot be afraid to s peak up.’
Apart from counselling, the MSW speaks to patients to understand their needs and speaks up for them so that their needs can be catered for. To represent the patient’s concerns to colleagues from other hospital departments requires patience and compassion.
Experience has taught me that there will always be differences but this shouldn’t interfere with what is right, what is desirable,’ Mr Lee says, adding that kindness is at the centre of his work ethic, whether he is dealing with patients or colleagues.
Patient care goes beyond providing clinical solutions for their medical issues. MSWs work closely with patients and their families to understand their needs and come up with care plans that help patients to return to their homes and the wider community.
Mr Lee explains: ‘This is our role: to give all kinds of support for patients to get the kind of treatment that is conducive for them. We always remember that they have their own lives to get back to. Our goal is that they should be able to function again.’
A large part of the work involves thinking and planning ahead on the patient’s behalf, especially for those who have no one at home to help them, or those who come from financially challenging backgrounds.
Mr Lee became conscious of this early on in his career.
In the 1970s, he came over to SGH from Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) for two weeks to cover for someone. ‘My main role was to help patients with financial arrangements for treatment. That was my first contact [with the MSW department in SGH],’ he recalls.
Mr Lee returned to SGH in 1992 when he was recruited by the Hospital to helm the department of Medical Social Services. At that time, he was working in the National Skin Centre where he had set up the Social Services Department. Prior to that, he had spent ten years running his own business. That had been a decision made out of necessity, to provide amply for his wife and children.
The decision to sell his firm and return to the public healthcare sector was not the first time Mr Lee had felt the pull of his MSW vocation. Many years before that, whilst he was a first-year student in Marine Engineering at Singapore Polytechnic, he had volunteered at the Chinese YMCA where he met a social worker, the brother of Professor Khoo Oon Teik, founder of the National Kidney Foundation: ‘I was quite taken with his work, so I quit Marine Engineering and went to study Social Work at the University of Singapore. I was 23 years old.’ Mr Lee’s lips widen briefly into a smile. ‘After the degree, I did a special one-year course in Medical Social Work. I had heard that there was a shortage of MSWs.’
He did the course on a Ministry of Health scholarship. His commitment to being a MSW hasn’t wavered since then.
When he reflects on the decade he’d spent as a businessman, a world of difference at first glance from that of social work at the Hospital, he says he’s glad he had that experience in the private sector: ‘It wasn’t for nothing. Because when I came back, I could use my understanding of financial matters purposefully. Like when my staff came to ask me, “What is a balance sheet?” and other finance-related questions.
In the early 1990s, after restructuring, the MSW department was often called upon to see if we could source for funding or come up with programmes to support the overall treatment of patients. We didn’t have funds at that time, so we had to depend mainly on external sources.’
The practical, administrative aspects of the MSW’s responsibilities towards patients come up again and again during the interview. MSWs have to try their best to understand patients’ needs and do everything possible, from writing papers to fundraising to setting up procedures, to help them. Mr Lee shares an example: ‘Around 1994 or 1995, we had to raise funds to buy medication for children suffering from Thalassaemia Major. Desferal was a very expensive and non-standard drug then, but it spared the children from undergoing frequent blood transfusions. We needed about $100,000 each year so I worked with Professor Tan Cheng Lim, Head of Paediatrics, and we put up a paper to the relevant authorities to get the needed funding. Today, Desferal is available for needy patients.’
When patients are uncooperative, there might very well be a reasonable cause for their behaviour. This was what Mr Lee learnt during his first posting as MSW to TTSH in the 1970s: ‘The whole hospital [Tan Tock Seng] was a TB [tuberculosis] hospital at the time, and we saw a lot of very poor patients. The treatment took at least six months. When the drugs became more effective, the patients didn’t have to stay for so long but they refused to leave because they had very nourishing food in Tan Tock Seng! So we started a Samaritan fund to help them and a rations distribution outlet to give them some basic food supplies to take home with them.’
Mr Lee’s work also includes speaking up for patients who have somehow fallen by the wayside in terms of subsidies for their treatment. He gives the example of leukaemia patients: ‘In the past, there was no subsidised treatment for leukaemia patients. We proposed a scheme to the [relevant authorities], and after persisting and engaging in talks, eventually, every patient who cannot afford private [treatment] can go [for] subsidised [care].’
MSWs act as advocates for patients, petitioning and negotiating on their behalf.
These two aspects of his work as a MSW—petitioning for others and planning of resources—are also central to his management style. Mr Lee is enthusiastic about staff well-being and professional development: ‘While we do a lot of things for the patients, sometimes we forget aboutour staff. The staff have their needs too. We were the first hospital to start a counselling service for staff in 1994.’
His concern for his staff, like his concern for his patients, is expressed pragmatically. He has worked hard to secure funding to send them for further education as well as to improve their department’s infrastructure, so that the working environment is more conducive.
What has sustained him all these years is his ‘motivation to want to help people, to want to be there for those [who are] less fortunate.’ He looks happy when he says he is prepared to carry on working as long as he can still walk: ‘My wife has retired, but I want to carry on!’
Mr Peter Lee can be described as the ‘pioneer, forever father and legend’ of SGH Medical Social Services. He began his career in 1967 by developing services for patients with mental health illnesses, leprosy and tuberculosis, the three most socially stigmatised diseases with little to no resources and support back then. He became the Head of SGH Medical Social Services in 1992. Mr Lee has been integral in establishing guidelines for financial assistance, discharge care planning and psychosocial support, which have now become the backbone of medical social services.
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