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Social work is not just about doing good

What does it mean to be a social worker? Is it about helping people or something more?

It’s a role which requires strength to empower, uplift and rehabilitate those when they need it most.

Dr Gilbert Fan, Master Medical Social Worker in the Department of Psychosocial Oncology in the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS) has dedicated his career to supporting individuals and families, doing social work research and shaping programmes to train the next generation of social workers. A well-respected social work veteran in Singapore, Dr Fan argues that social work is about more than just lending a hand.

"Social work is about strategic and appropriate transformation of people's lives by studying their fit in all aspects of familial and communal living," said Dr Fan.

Curious beginnings

As a child, Dr Fan lived in a neighbourhood where modern private houses and wooden communal houses, known as "kampong" houses sat side by side. This coexistence revealed a stark contrast between the rich and poor. Curious about the disparity in social classes, Gilbert began to observe the different ways that people live their lives and how families communicate, bond and show their love.

As he grew older, Dr Fan asked himself what path he wanted to take in life. A corporate career was the more conventional route, but he wanted to do something that would allow him to be a part of the human experience, with all its struggles and rewards.

At university, Dr Fan pursued a double degree in Labour Studies and Social Work at McMaster University in Canada, followed by a Master's Degree in Educational Studies at the University of Sheffield (United Kingdom). With a robust educational background in social work, Dr Fan was ready to contribute to society.


Dr Gilbert Fan (far right) with his peers in Singapore after returning from Canada.

Giving hope

In 1999, Dr Fan, joined NCCS as a medical social worker. Prior to that, he had coordinated the set-up of the Medical Social Work Department at Changi General Hospital and concurrently set up a home visit and rehabilitation programme at the National University Hospital.

"My world view changed over the course of my career. I came to see that despite suffering or illness, the poor or vulnerable can be happy, and that individuals with serious illness can find meaning in their lives. That is when the opportunity to join NCCS came along," shared Dr Fan. 

At NCCS, Dr Fan supports patients on their cancer journey, from diagnosis and treatment to discharge. He and his team provide practical assistance, such as financial counselling and making sure patients have no barriers to treatment. This includes making sure they can travel to and from NCCS, have help with the cost of medicines and emotional support. They also address the psychological wellbeing of patients’ and their caregivers’ by working with them to build their self-confidence, resilience and ability to cope with life issues.


Dr Gilbert Fan (right) and colleague, Mr Travis Loh, from the Department of Psychosocial Oncology, National Cancer Centre Singapore, conducting Psycho-Oncology Training at K2 Hospital in Vietnam in 2008.

Social work at NCCS is uniquely shaped by the reality that many patients and their caregivers may experience grief. With this in mind, Dr Fan made an effort to specialise in grief, bereavement, and applying experiential counselling for patients with advanced cancers.

"Specialising in grief work has taught me that we are all bonded by love, expressed in different forms and ways. And it's because we love that we grieve. We cannot take away the pain of grief, but we can walk alongside and support those who are grieving," explained Dr Fan.

Over the course of 22 years, Dr Fan has had many roles at NCCS, moving from medical social worker to manager and then Head of the Department of Psychosocial Oncology in 2009. He stepped down in 2015 to assume the role of Master Medical Social Worker and to pursue research and the training of social workers in Singapore. With a passion to grow oncology social work practice, he started the Social Work Oncology Network in Singapore. The network allows social workers in cancer-related organisations to come together to share knowledge and address common challenges.

A focus on Singapore

As part of his professional training, Dr Fan pursued a doctorate in Social Work and Futures Studies, preceded by two professional diplomas in therapy.

In addition to research, Dr Fan has created local therapies to serve the local population, some of which have been published in journals and book chapters.

“We need to adapt western theories and concepts to our local culture as not all of them are fully applicable within our Asian society,” explained Dr Fan.

Examples are the “The Typhoon and Virgin Island Visualization Exercises”, which explores an individual’s current coping style and behaviours; “Coin Therapy”, used to counsel a person with depressed moods; and “Re-decision Exercise”, to help individuals let go of emotional hurt. These models help patients learn about themselves, equip them with skills to deal with critical situations and provide relief when confronted with guilt and grief.

As President of the Singapore Association of Social Workers in the early 2000s, he promoted social workers' identity and professional development by publishing a seminal piece of research that led to the growth of social work programmes in universities in Singapore. He also mentors Master and Doctorate students specialising in social work and teaches junior medical social workers at NCCS to integrate psychosocial oncology and grief theories in their work.

Awarding dedication

For his dedication and the transformational changes he has made over the course of his career, Dr Fan was recently conferred the national-level Outstanding Social Worker Award by the Singapore Association of Social Workers and supported by the Ministry of Social and Family Development and Exxon Mobil.

“I feel that this award is a motivation and recognition of social work as a valuable profession in our society. I am grateful for this important recognition," said Dr Fan.

What’s next?

These days Dr Fan is not only a Master Medical Social Worker at NCCS; he is also Co-Chair for Volunteer Engagement, Human Resources Counsellor and Trainer (Employee Relations). Outside of NCCS, Dr Fan is a Fellow of the Social Service Institute, an ad hoc part-time lecturer at the National University of Singapore and the Chinese University of Hong Kong and continues to contribute to the missions of many social work organisations in Singapore and the region.

The dedication that Dr Fan displays is apparent. It underscores his belief that social work is not just about helping people but understanding families and communities and using that knowledge to strategically transform lives for the greater good of society.