Tailored shirt & pants, tie from Vanda Fine, shoes from Ed Et Al.
Mark spends most of his day underground in the basement of a building in Raffles Place. Down a steep flight of carpeted stairs is his windowless clinic where he sees up to half a hundred patients each day, surrounded by stark white walls and tables packed with medical equipment. But while the picture we’ve painted might not sound the most cheerful, Mark’s actually incredibly happy to do what he does—getting to meet people from all walks of life, listening to what ails them, and then, he hopes, being able to help them get better. There’s an added bit of light to his life too—his wife recently gave birth to their first daughter, and her photograph on his desk reminds him of what he’s working for each day. We speak to Mark to find out more.
How did you become a doctor? Was this something you always wanted to do?
Actually, no leh, it was just something I applied for and got into. (laughs) But I found that it was quite meaningful. You study for five years and then you have one year of practice before you become a fully-registered doctor. The studying was not the hard part, the hard part was actually working. A lot of times you learn on the job. But that, and meeting people every day, and seeing how you can make an impact in their lives—that’s the rewarding part.
What are some of the challenges you face on the job?
You have to meet the expectations of patients. A lot of times, they have a preconceived idea of what they expect to get out of the consultation because of the things they see on TV or read on the internet. There’s an increasing expectation to have a solution to every single problem, but unfortunately sometimes it’s not as quick as they want, or as easy as they think it is. Things like chronic medical problems take time; they’re not resolved in one consultation. You slowly build rapport with the patients and it gets easier.
What’s a typical work day like for you?
Typically, it’s constantly seeing people. I usually see about 40-50 patients. We open from 830AM–1PM, then there’s an hour’s lunch break, and then 2PM–6PM. Sometimes I do night shifts, but because my kid’s around, I try not to do the nights. I might do half a day on Saturday. A more atypical day would involve having to send a patient to the hospital in an ambulance. My aim is to catch them early so they don’t have to be admitted—that’s primary healthcare. If possible, we try to manage the patients as much as we can on our end.
What’s a hard day at work for you?
Most of my days are fine but I guess what’s hard is being away from my family. I have a newborn daughter so I just want to spend more time with her—even though she can’t do much except cry and eat—but I still have to work. I just came back from three weeks of paternal leave but it’s never enough!
What are some things people don’t know about your job?
Primary healthcare is not just seeing people with runny noses. We do see a lot of chronic diseases like hypertension or mental health problems. And people don’t come to us with a diagnosis, like “I have a flu” or “I have a stomach ulcer”—they just come to us with a complaint. I’ll have to analyse the complaints and start the management, or refer them to the next appropriate person. I guess the ‘fun’ of the job is that I get to see a broad spectrum of patients, and from there I get to apply a bit of analytical thinking or problem-solving. Another common misconception people have is that doctors will always side with other doctors. We won’t trample over the previous doctor’s diagnosis if we think he made a mistake, but we have to explain why our diagnosis is different. We don’t have to protect the other guy but it’s just a bit of professional courtesy.
Some people think of specialists being better than general practitioners (GPs). How do you feel about that?
They’re not wrong because they do spend the years to train and become specialised. So a specialist really is zai (Hokkien for ‘steady’, or more broadly, ‘adept’). What I think gives me more zai-ness is that I try not to see the patient as just a complaint: I try to deal with them as a real person, not just the guy with flu. So I look for things they need to watch for in the future—offer health screenings for older folks, for example.
As a doctor, do you feel like you have to learn how to deal with people?
A lot of people look for that in a doctor—someone they can relate to, who understands their problem, and besides all that, who can diagnose them correctly and manage them properly. We can’t really be friends with our patients, because of the ethics code, but I think it’s good that we build some rapport with them. If they’re comfortable sharing their problems with us, or if we’re on the same wavelength, I think that eventually that’s going to translate into better care for them. It’s more likely for the patient to accept the doctor’s opinion. I think dealing with people is a soft skill that you can’t really learn in school—it’s something that you either have, or have to develop over time.
What’s something that your work has taught you?
I’ve learnt that there’s no end to learning as a doctor. You still have to be humble, because you’re never going to be right 100% of the time—it’s impossible. When you’re wrong, the last thing you should do is cover up your mistake. I have made mistakes before, too, so I just have to explain to the patient, and tell them what I would do to rectify it. I realised that I actually formed a better bond with all of the patients that I’ve had to do that to. They’re more likely to trust a doctor who’s willing to be open with them.
Do you have any advice for anybody who wants to become a doctor?
Don’t do it for the money. I mean the money’s not too bad (laughs), but you will not go very far if you just do it for the money. The hours are long, especially at the start. If you’re lucky you get to do something that you like, but if not you may be spending a lot of time trying to find where you fit into the whole picture. You have to really like what you do; you can’t treat it like a job, you have to treat it like your calling for you to really appreciate it.
So why do you continue to do this day in and out, and what are you working for?
I like interacting with people. It’s a job which I never thought would be so fulfilling. I get to speak to people on a daily basis, I try to solve their problems, and mostly everyone, including myself, leaves happy. I’m working to provide for my wife and child, to pay the bills, and finance life experiences! I also work to serve my patients better.
When it comes to hard work, do you have a role model you look up to?
I don’t think I have one role model, but across my postings I meet a lot of people—the doctors, nurses, and patient coordinators. They inspired me on many levels—not so much by how hard they worked but how much they were willing to give for the patient. They really go the extra mile: they’d see patients after office hours, go to the patient’s house, give them their numbers, and they’re in regular contact with them. The consultation doesn’t just end in the consultation room.
What do you think of the mindset of the current generation when it comes to work?
I think our generation is a lot different from our parents’ era, in the sense that they were willing to work for their boss, slog, and take home a normal pay. I think the youngsters of today, myself included, have lofty aspirations. They’re not willing to just accept a simple job or be content with being just an employee. They want to strike out and be their own bosses; they don’t mind taking some risks and working hard. They want to do something bigger for themselves, or for the rest of the world. I think that’s the biggest difference.
Do you have any advice when it comes to managing your finances for you family or yourself?
I think it’s a simple formula, lah: make sure you earn more than you spend. I put aside money every month in a savings account, and make sure to top up my Central Provident Fund and Supplementary Retirement Scheme account every year. I keep the rest of my money as cash, of which a portion are in short-term fixed deposits, and the remainder in bank accounts that give good interest rates. I do invest a bit; I’m not very good at it, but I try my luck. (laughs) I’m pretty risk-averse for my long term investments, and I try not to invest money that I will need in the next 1-2 years .
When it comes to providing for yourself (or your family) financially, what are some active steps you’ve taken?
I believe in planning for future expenses and setting money aside for emergencies. I keep six months of expenses in cash aside, and buy some hospitalisation and life insurance as well. Every six months I take stock of my expenses and make adjustments to my portfolio. I don’t believe in debt and I currently have zero liabilities, but that’s going to change when I get the keys to my flat at the end of the year! I pay off my credit card expenses in full, and make use of credit card promotions, rebates, and miles to help stretch my dollars .
Is there something you’re saving up for at the moment?
I’m putting money aside for the renovation of my new house, and for the home loan. I’m also saving money to invest in myself! Either to start a business, or to further my studies.
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