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Working 25 years to deliver hope of a cancer-free tomorrow

The National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS) opened 25 years ago with the aim of offering patients hope of a cancer-free tomorrow by delivering quality cancer care, researching the disease and leading cancer innovation and education. As NCCS celebrates its silver anniversary, let’s take a behind-the-scenes look at the people at NCCS who have dedicated their careers to continually innovating to improve care for individuals affected by cancer. Staff, who joined NCCS a quarter of a century ago in 1999, share how they found their calling serving patients at NCCS.

Ensuring that patients have a seamless experience

Justine Tan makes sure that the human element is still a part of the NCCS clinic experience

Justine Tan, Assistant Director of Clinic Administration at NCCS, has a finger on the pulse of all that happens in the 7 specialist outpatient clinics at NCCS. Passionate about quality service delivery, she works closely with the clinical care teams to ensure that patients have a seamless experience when they come for clinic appointments. 

Since she joined NCCS 25 years ago, Justine has seen many changes to care processes and policies with the biggest being the move to increasing digitalisation. Justine is pragmatic about this change, sharing that while increased digitalisation is necessary to increase efficiency, healthcare still needs the human touch. 

“Healthcare is a people’s business, you still need “software” or “people” to deliver the service,” said Justine. “Our patient service associates and staff on the ground play an important role in meeting the needs of our patients. We have implemented training to upgrade their skillset so that they can help patients navigate the new systems in place.”

Justine feels that her passion for working in healthcare and fellowship of colleagues has kept her  growing her career at NCCS.

A pharmacy technician whose team is her family
The NCCS Oncology Pharmacy team is as close as family 

Being a part of a tight-knit team who feel like family is one of Nurhairati Bte Hj Hussin's greatest inspirations at work. She works with the team in the Oncology Pharmacy in NCCS to prepare chemotherapy drugs, and dispense oral cancer medicines, painkillers and other general medication to patients.

In 1999, Nurhairati joined the newly opened NCCS retail pharmacy. After a few years on the job, she upgraded her skills by completing the Certified Pharmacy Technician Course, an in-house training Pharmaceutical Society of Singapore and in 2004 she joined the Oncology Pharmacy where she has continued to work till today.

In her role as a Pharmacy Technician Supervisor, Nurhairati supervises a team of pharmacy technicians in drug preparation and dispensing. For the first half of the day, Nurhairati and team prepare or compound drugs according to patients’ prescriptions, and during the second half of the day they dispense medication, counsel patients on dosage, side effects, potential drug interactions and how to manage missed doses. Their role requires detailed knowledge about the different drugs and expertise to mix them.

“Each time a new drug comes in, all of us get together to learn how to compound the drug and the regimen that the patients need to follow. We trust one another and work well together, which motivates me greatly!” 

Answering the call to become a nurse 
Senior Enrolled Nurse Hanita Bte Ismail always wanted to be a nurse

Hanita Bte Ismail was just a child when she decided she wanted to be a nurse after visiting her aunt in the hospital. She observed and admired the nurses who gave the patients comfort and care. 

“I applied to become a nurse straight after secondary school. I knew I didn’t want a desk-bound job and liked the idea of being on-the-go caring for patients,” said Hanita.

With her father’s support, she embarked on her career in healthcare as a nurse aide and studied to become an enrolled nurse. After 10 years nursing in the haematology ward in Singapore General Hospital (SGH), Hanita moved to NCCS in 1999. 

She first started out in the Ambulatory Treatment Unit and moved to her permanent role in the operating theatre soon after. As Senior Enrolled Nurse in the NCCS Operating Theatre, she performs pre-surgery assessment for patients, helps them recover after surgery and anaesthesia, and teaches them post-surgery wound care. Hanita also follows-up with a phone call the day after surgery to check how her patients are doing. 

Hanita shared that thanks to her managers, she has learnt a lot on the job that has helped in her career and personal life.  

“They taught me that you must make people feel comfortable, whether they are our patients or colleagues. I try to connect and joke with them to establish a relationship so that they feel comfortable, and we can work better together as a team towards the same goals.” 

Pursuing his passion for research and helping patients
Professor Balram Chowbay is an expert in pharmacological research

Professor Balram Chowbay remembers running around KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, where his father worked when he was 6 years old.  When the time came to choose a career, he knew it had to be in healthcare. He first joined the SGH Pharmacy Department in 1990.  

“Senior pharmacists and clinicians recognised my interest in helping patients and tasked me to get involved in setting up inpatient pharmacy services in the surgical and medical wards and the intensive care units in SGH,” shared Prof Balram.

He pushed to set up the first therapeutic drug monitoring service that would give medical teams feedback on how patients were reacting to the prescribed drug in real-time, so that any changes needed could be made in a timely manner.

In 1998, Prof Balram was recruited to join the soon-to-be-opened NCCS, by founding medical director, Prof Soo Khee Chee, for his expertise in therapeutic drug monitoring and to pioneer the establishment of pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics and pharmacogenomics research in the new Centre. In the 1990s this area of research which looked at how the body interacts with medications and how genetic factors impact drug response, was in its infancy in Singapore. Most medication regimes were based on studies done on Western populations, and effective dosage and possible side-effects were unaccounted for in the local multiethnic patient population. 

In 2000, Prof Balram set up the Clinical Pharmacology laboratory in NCCS. He pioneered several pharmacogenetic-based studies in early phase clinical trials and developed a number of pharmacogenomic markers for optimising drug dosage. Prof Balram's laboratory developed a pharmacogenetic test for UGT1A1, for patients receiving the drug, Irinotecan. Irinotecan, which was approved by HSA in 2009, is often ordered by oncologists to treat patients with solid tumours. The results of the test help clinicians to tailor the dosage of the drug in cancer patients so as to reduce severe side-effects.

“The work I do is very fulfilling. My personal aim is that whatever research I do, I want to be able to bring it to patients and help them. I’m glad I have been able to do that here at NCCS.”

Embodiment of the NCCS spirit
As NCCS commemorates 25 years of progress from breakthroughs to healing, it is evident that the dedicated individuals who work to give patients hope as they face the challenges of a cancer diagnosis are the heart of this institution.