The medical mentor

Prof James Best is NTU President’s Chair in Medicine and Dean of the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine (LKCMedicine), a joint school of NTU and Imperial College London (ICL) that accepted its first students in 2013. He has led the young medical school over the last five years. Lauded for his outstanding contributions to LKCMedicine and ICL, and his achievements as an inspirational teacher, researcher, clinician and medical leader, he recently received the Imperial College Medal, ICL’s top honour. Here he shares his views on the School’s achievements in innovative medical education and crossdisciplinary research, and how LKCMedicine plans to impact both Singapore’s patients and global health.

Q: Having been instrumental in the development of LKCMedicine as the School’s Dean since 2014, which aspects of the School are you most proud of?

A: I’m proud of our innovative pedagogy that is IT-enabled and centred around team-based and integrated learning. Our students learn all disciplines—be it biochemistry, physiology or pathology—in an integrated way; the same way medicine is practised. In addition, all educational material is IT-enabled, facilitating the flipped classroom model in which students watch lectures on their iPads in their own time and later discuss the contents in the classroom. I’m also extremely proud of the achievements of the School’s research programme, which has developed remarkably over the past five years, with a good balance between work done by senior, experienced scientists, clinician-scientists and early-career faculty. We have linked our research to the medical education programme. All students have a six-week exposure to research during their medical course, where they can choose between lab bench research, clinical research, population health studies or medical education research. We have also developed a vibrant PhD programme, with a significant number of clinicians enrolled for postgraduate research studies.

Q: What makes LKCMedicine distinct from other medical schools in Singapore and the region? In what way has LKCMedicine’s approach affected the professional preparedness and quality of the school’s first graduates?

A: At LKCMedicine we were able to build a curriculum from the start, brick by brick. We drew on the expertise of ICL in terms of processes and curriculum, among other areas, but we have also done things differently, for instance, in the way we use team-based learning and our house system, with oversight from house tutors.

We also changed the pre-internship Student Assistantship Programme module, where students are attached to medical teams and focus on practical aspects in internal medicine, surgery and family medicine for ten weeks. The most critical part of our programme has been the fact that—in contrast to other medical schools—our students sit for their final exams before their pre-internship, so they can fully concentrate on the training. As a consequence, the pre-internship has been hugely successful in preparing our students for the transition from being a student to being a doctor responsible for patients—the most stressful part of a medical career. Also, family medicine as a discipline has been an area of strong emphasis at LKCMedicine and has been received very positively since there is a high demand for family medicine practitioners in Singapore.

We receive very positive feedback about our students from clinicians at the polyclinics and hospitals. At the moment, we are conducting a qualitative study on the students’ performance as well as on the students’ view of their internships. The survey results will be used to adjust the curriculum.

Q: In which research areas can LKCMedicine contribute the most to Singapore and the wider world?

A: One area in which LKCMedicine is making a strong contribution to Singapore and globally is respiratory medicine. A growing burden for Singapore, chronic lung disease here is quite different from chronic lung disease in Europe due to the involvement of different microorganisms present in the tropical environment.

We are also conducting a large population health study called HELIOS that includes up to 100,000 Singaporeans. Focussing particularly on diabetes, which is significantly different in Asian as compared to European populations, we search for new solutions and therapies for Singapore that might be translatable to the rest of Asia and beyond. In infectious diseases such as dengue, tuberculosis, malaria and Zika, the medical school contributes to research with the goal of improving disease control in the region. We are also addressing the problem of antibiotic resistance in partnership with Singapore’s two other medical schools.

Q: What are the school’s major thrusts in health and medical research, and what have been some of its major research achievements?

A: As a medical school linked to two research-intensive universities—NTU and ICL—LKCMedicine is expected to make significant contributions to scientific knowledge. We focus on areas where we can leverage the strengths of our national partner, the National Healthcare Group, and related centres and hospitals. For example, in brain health, we have strong partnerships with the Institute of Mental Health and the National Neuroscience Institute. LKCMedicine is also contributing strongly to NTU’s world-class Cognitive Neuroimaging Centre. Another research strength is in an area of concern for Singapore—diabetes and metabolism. This work is linked with NTU’s Singapore Phenome Centre, again strongly supported by LKCMedicine. We also emphasise research in dermatology and skin biology in connection with Singapore’s National Skin Centre and the Skin Research Institute of Singapore. At NTU we are working with colleagues in different branches of engineering and science, across areas that include stem cell science and regenerative medicine, diagnostics and drug discovery, where the medical school can function as the bridge between engineers or scientists and the implementation of new discoveries and technologies for patient care.

Q: What are your aspirations for the School going forward?

A: I would want the medical school to continue innovating in pedagogy and producing fine doctors—doctors who care and themselves are innovative, aiming to improve the healthcare system. On the research side, I would like the School to continue being a vital contributor to medical discoveries in Singapore and a real asset to NTU. LKCMedicine already has a very good international reputation, particularly for its education, and I’d like to see the School being more prominent internationally in research as well. In addition to our very close partnership with Imperial, we have collaborations with some of the finest medical schools in the world, including Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, the UK’s Cambridge University, Harvard University in the US, and Germany’s University of Dresden, to name a few. To develop these collaborations into shared research programmes takes time.

Q: You juggle duties as Dean while serving on healthcare and medical research boards in Singapore and Australia. How do you split your time between research, teaching and service?

A:  My role as dean is to support our faculty as they conduct their research and build relationships on an organisational level as well as individual level. Besides being responsible for the research and teaching in LKCMedicine, I provide mentorship to clinicians enrolled in the School’s PhD programme. Started less than four years ago, the programme has now enrolled over 20 clinicians as PhD students who come from backgrounds such as family medicine, orthopaedic surgery, psychiatry and dermatology.

The article appeared first in NTU’s research & innovation magazine Pushing Frontiers (issue #16, February 2020). 

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