Professor Ivy Ng has that remarkable ability to make anyone feel at ease within seconds. As I enter her office for the first time, her face splits into a large grin and she exclaims: “You’re here!”
It’s as if I’m a long-lost friend, not a journalist here to interview the Group CEO of Singapore Health Services (SingHealth), the nation’s largest healthcare cluster.
Prof Ng assumed this position in January, after relinquishing two hefty portfolios: CEO of KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH), a role she had served in since 2004, and Deputy CEO of SingHealth since 2008.
Her eight-year tenure at KKH was marked by change and expansion. There, she oversaw KKH’s transformation from a hospital best known for specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology to one that encompasses most aspects of women’s healthcare. Today, KKH offers a range of services, from breast cancer treatments to aesthetic surgery.
Now, as Group CEO, Prof Ng is chief steward of SingHealth’s two hospitals (Singapore General and and KKH), nine polyclinics and five national speciality centres, all of which employ over 17,000 people.
In a country with few women in senior managerial positions (over 60 per cent of listed firms here have no female board members), she sits on the boards of not one but several institutions, including Mercy Relief, the KKH Health Endowment Fund, SingHealth Foundation and Singapore Management University’s Lee Kong Chian School of Business.
At 53, she’s reached the pinnacle of her career. But despite her impressive resume, Prof Ng is far from intimidating. Her boss, Peter Seah, SingHealth’s chairman, describes her as brimming with “optimism, positive energy and a nurturing demeanour”.
Sure enough, she’s bubbly and excitable in person—the sort who smiles cheerfully and sweeps people up in her infectious zeal. Her speech is effusive, her gestures animated, especially when we’re on her pet topic—patients.
“What really drives me is being able to help people in their greatest point of need,” she says. “I see it as a special calling. This has never been just a job or about earning money. Never.”
At orientation talks for new employees, Prof Ng usually asks new staff to recall a moment when they or a loved one was ill.
“Without exception, people can go back to that point in time,” she says. “I ask them to describe their feelings then—the vulnerability, fear, sadness and impatience at not knowing what was happening.
“Then I ask them to take hold of that moment and think about how they’re now in a position to help people who are feeling exactly the same way.”
A DEFINING MOMENT
The desire to help had its roots in her childhood.
Born Ivy Lim Swee Lian, she was the youngest of four children. Her father, Lim Toh Nee, had been an aspiring doctor whose education and medical ambitions were cut short by World War II. He became a laboratory technician but never forgot his dream.
“He always told me I had one life and had to spend it well. And what better way to spend it than to help the sick?” Prof Ng recalls. “He would say how the doctors he worked with made such a difference to people’s lives.”
Then, a near tragedy struck the household.
When she was 10 years old, Prof Ng’s father suffered a massive haemorrhage from a bleeding stomach ulcer. He repeatedly vomited blood and was rushed to the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) in an ambulance.
There, Mr Lim received 21 pints of blood and a life-saving operation to remove most of his stomach. He was warded for over a month.
During that time, Prof Ng and her family got to know the nurses and doctors attending to him. “I was comforted by their dedication and competence,” she recalls.
Prof Ng calls that incident a “defining moment”. It sealed her resolve to dedicate her life to helping others.
So at 18, she enrolled in the National University of Singapore’s medical school. There, she met her future husband, now Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen. They were classmates in their freshman year and engaged by the time they graduated in July 1982. They wed four months later.
For most of the 80s, Prof Ng did her postgraduate training in paediatrics (“because I love kids”). Then, at age 30, she embarked on a two-year fellowship in the US, studying genetics at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York and Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. It was a milestone experience as it developed her confidence and taught her how to speak up.
She recalls how her team would have “intense discussions” every morning over the diagnosis and management of patients. “I usually knew the answers but, as is the Singapore way, I hesitated to speak unless I was invited to,” she recalls. “But I soon learnt that you have to give your opinions or people will think you don’t know the answers. So I learnt how to hold my own in discussions.”
Her foray into genetics also marked the start of a fruitful research career, beginning her transition from clinician to stalwart leader.
DOCTOR, RESEARCHER, LEADER
Prof Ng returned to Singapore in the early 90s, and began establishing herself as an authority on thalassaemia, an inherited blood disorder. She became interested after coming across many patients stricken with the condition.
The most common genetic disease in Singapore, thalassaemia occurs where a faulty gene causes the body to produce too few blood cells. Those who have it usually suffer from anaemia and need monthly blood transfusions. Back then, it was difficult to diagnose couples at risk of having thalassaemia major offspring.
“I got to know a number of the patients well and was saddened when they died in their late teens because of an iron overload,” says Prof Ng, referring to how the monthly blood transfusions can result in a dangerous accumulation of iron in patients’ bodies. Drugs to remove iron were expensive then and not commonly used.
So, Prof Ng headed a team of researchers at SGH to study thalassaemia and to develop better patient care and prenatal diagnosis techniques. This would let parents know if their unborn baby had thalassaemia major at an earlier stage of pregnancy, and they would then be counselled about their options.
By 1992, Prof Ng had founded and become director of the National Thalassaemia Registry, which screened at-risk individuals, and offered counselling and prenatal diagnosis. The number of thalassaemia major births dropped. For her research, Prof Ng nabbed the SGH Young Investigator Award in 1993, given to doctors under 35 for outstanding research.
She then joined KKH in 1997 where she rose through several key appointments: head of the Genetics Service department, and later, the Paediatric Medicine department; Chair of the medical board, and eventually, CEO. One of her proudest achievements at KKH was constantly pushing to place patients at the heart of all initiatives, a paradigm shift at the time.
“What’s normally accepted is that you focus on having a very efficient hospital,” she says. “The biggest challenge is getting that balance of efficiency and care that is focused on the patient.”
Under her watch, the hospital navigated that delicate equilibrium. KKH certainly became more efficient: with the maternity ward under-utilised due to falling birthrates in the noughties, Prof Ng diverted resources into developing the hospital’s other capabilities, including its mental wellness, orthopaedic, breast, ear, nose and throat, and aesthetic services.
At the same time, she rolled out measures to streamline patient care, including the Cleft and Craniofacial Centre and the Breast Centre, dedicated to breast disease. These centres eliminated the need for patients to shuttle between different healthcare professionals by gathering them all under one roof—oncologists, radiologists, surgeons and so on.
The accolades poured in. In 2009, KKH nabbed the WHO-UAE Health Foundation award for its integrated perinatal care programme. Prof Ng herself swept up accolades for exceptional leadership, including the Singapore Human Resource Institute Leading CEO Award in 2008 and the International Management Action Award in 2010.
Chua Pek Kim, KKH’s human resource director, recalls Prof Ng as a decisive boss who set “high standards”. But also one with a kind streak.
“During the H1N1 scare in 2009, the staff were stressed by the increased precautionary measures,” she recalled.
“Prof Ng sent weekly e-mails to encourage them and personally put together ‘care packs’ for them containing thermometers and hand sanitisers.”
Colleagues and friends never fail to mention Prof Ng’s perennial smile and booming laugh—hallmarks of her good nature. “She always greets her staff and colleagues, not with a simple hello, but with their names,” says Dr Tan Ee Shien, a consultant at KKH who was mentored by Prof Ng as a junior doctor.
When asked about her rapport with staff, Prof Ng is self-deprecating, simply saying, “I just like them, really!” But she grows serious. “My leadership style is goal-driven yet people-centred. It’s driven by the goal which is patients but it’s people-centred because people make it happen.”
A BETTER TOMORROW
As SingHealth’s head honcho, Prof Ng’s eye is on the future. After all, the organisation’s vision is to “define tomorrow’s medicine”—a mandate to tirelessly work for better healthcare.
Key to this is SingHealth’s Academic Medicine partnership, a collaboration with Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, now in its seventh year. Both organisations work together to come up with better healthcare solutions for patients. Next year, a new 13-storey building called The Academia will rise up on the SGH campus, housing research and education facilities to further the Academic Medicine journey.
As head of SingHealth, Prof Ng drives and recommends the programme to the public and her staff. For instance, she holds regular lunch dialogues with her doctors to encourage them to get behind the programme—such as by devoting time to research projects or teaching medical students.
She insists Academic Medicine isn’t esoteric. The crux of the programme is to question the status quo, and push for better solutions. She cites the example of the KKH’s programme to screen babies for hearing impairment. “In the past, you wouldn’t know if a baby could hear until you realised it wasn’t talking at one or two years old,” she says.
“Now, we diagnose newborns before they are a month old and start treatment by the time they’re six months old. Because we do it early, they end up speaking normally and can go to regular schools.”
One measure of the programme’s success was last year’s announcement that the Singapore School of the Deaf will likely close in 2016 due to fewer children suffering from serious hearing loss. “That’s what Academic Medicine does. It looks at a disease and asks ‘how do we do better? How do we prevent this and improve the quality of life?’” says Prof Ng.
“If we simply accept that conditions like deafness occur, we lose the opportunity to change lives.”
Prof Ng hopes this questioning spirit will drive SingHealth. “I call it constructive discontent. You’ve got to keep asking how we can do better.”
A REAL-LIFE SUPERWOMAN
Prof Ng may command a ship of over 17,000 people, but her heart and soul belong to just five—her husband and four children, Jonathan, Jill, Joel and Jeanne, aged between 27 and 18.
Despite her busy schedule, Prof Ng strongly advocates work-life balance. Family is her top priority and “work doesn’t even come a close second”.
She explains the stressful nature of the healthcare industry makes it all the more crucial for people to rest and recharge. “People think of work-life balance as a luxury. I don’t. I see it as an absolute necessity for a sustainable, high-performance organisation,” she says.
Back at the family home in the Tanglin area, the Ng household gathers for dinner at least four times a week, as well as for lunch on Sundays.
When asked about her husband, she says he’s supportive of her career. “He has never asked me to quit my job!” she jokes. They’ll celebrate their 30th anniversary in November.
Youngest daughter Jeanne, 18, used to play netball in school. Her fondest memory is of her mother taking leave to attend all her matches. “She would be there no matter what,” says the Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) student.
“She’s kind of a Superwoman,” says elder daughter Jill, 24, a graphic designer. “And it reflects in her parenting. She’s a very involved and engaged mum.” Prof Ng even has her kids on Facebook. Jill remembers how her mother “Facebooked [her] all the time” when she was on an overseas university exchange programme just to see how she was doing.
The number of hats Prof Ng wears is impressive: Respected leader. Accomplished doctor. Award-winning researcher. Doting wife. Proud mother. At a time when women are doubting the adage that they can “have it all” – career, family and fulfilment – Prof Ng has struck that elusive equilibrium.
What’s her secret?
There is none. “I have a very full life and thankfully, I’m very passionate about the work I do so I seldom feel like I need to unwind,” she smiles.
“I’m the sort who jumps out of bed, excited about the day ahead. Every day brings a new adventure. And it motivates me to do what my father always said I should do—help others.”
PROF NG’S TIPS ON HOW TO HAVE IT ALL
Know what matters: “Be very clear about your priorities so there is less of a struggle. It will also help you make the difficult decisions about what you need to do every day.”
Be prepared for sacrifice: “When I was young, I said no to most social events and spent all my time outside of work with family. It seems difficult but children do grow up very quickly. The important thing is to have a close relationship with them and transmit the right values.
Ask for help: “It’s really important to have a support network, even if it means shamelessly depending on your parents or parents-in-law. I’m fortunate because my parents were supportive of my career and selflessly helped with my children.”