As a child, Dr Tan Sok Chuen loved playing with jigsaw puzzles and LEGO and assembling Ikea furniture on my own. This later inspired her to develop a career in orthopaedics.
“I was excited by how you can perfectly fit two broken bones together, and how knee replacement implants are assembled together in ways similar to building things. I was also quite intrigued by how we can actually aim to correct leg deformity to the degree,” she explains. The 41-year-old is one of two female private orthopaedic surgeons in Singapore and recently co-founded Hip & Knee Orthopaedics with her husband.
She is also the only female hip and knee surgeon in the country and has had her skills undermined because of her gender. She opens up about the challenges she has had to overcome in being in a male-dominated field.
Undermined because of her gender
“When I first started, I used to get ignored, or the senior surgeons would be disappointed that they did not get a ‘stronger’ assistant instead,” says Dr Tan. however, she pressed on by being “thick-skinned” and would hang around after classes to learn more.
“Spending more time either scrubbing in or reading up more about the procedures enabled me to assist better and do the procedures more independently. We have one of the most rigorous training program and examination formats. After completing the local residency training, I did two years of overseas fellowship in centres renowned for joint replacements. I believe I built credibility not only through showing that I am true to my word, but also my surgical work.”
But her competency wasn’t just undermined by colleagues, but also patients.
“They’d say, ‘Wow, hips and knees, aren’t they very heavy?’ And you know that what they actually mean is ‘Are you strong enough for the job?'”
“But if you have ever stepped in the operating theatre, you would realise that there is actually a team of people inside during any surgery. In addition to the surgeons, you would have the anaesthetist, scrub nurses, circulating nurse, OT attendant and assistants from the implant companies. There are always people available to help and these occasions are quite rare.”
She adds that she overcomes her physical disadvantages by always asking for standing stools to be available and working out regularly to build up strength and stamina. She is also proud of the things she brings to the table as a woman, like demonstrating greater patience when dealing with patients and approaching conflicts with a gentler approach.
More women in the field
At present, Dr Tan sees patients from a wide age range, and even though they are mostly in their 30s to 50s, there are also toddlers with fractures and elderly patients with osteoarthritis. Most of the adults she sees suffer from overuse injuries, or neck and back pain from poor ergonomics as a result of working from home.
When she’s not practising, she makes it a point to spend time with her family, which includes a six-year-old son. To her, family and good health form the core or foundation on which she builds her career.
She also hopes to see more women in the field and has some advice for aspiring female orthopaedic surgeons.
“Be thick-skinned, work hard and work smart! Also be humble and learn to work with the men in the field. At the end of the day, I believe that just as in the orthopaedic fraternity, the patients and the fraternity itself will all stand to gain from a more gender-balanced talent pool,” she says.