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Achieving International Standing

He has successful private practice, yet Dr Michael Wong is still passionate about teaching and training fellow surgeons around the world.

He has just celebrated the 10th anniversary of his private practice after spending nearly 22 years at Singapore General Hospital (SGH), but Singapore Urologist Dr Michael Wong isn’t keen to focus on the achievements and milestones of his practice. He is chatting with THIS Quarterly in his consultation room on the premises of International Urology, Fertility and Gynaecology Centre, which is located in Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre. “I’d prefer to chat about my academic journey in urology since leaving public practice at SGH,” stresses the cheerful and friendly physician.

Instead, he wishes to reveal why and how he has continued with his academic and educational pursuits, and “achieved peer international standing that far exceeds any of my expectations” in parallel with a busy and successful private practice.

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Peer International Recognition

At the moment, the most prominent, internationally recognised academic position Dr Wong holds is Associate Editor at the British Journal of Urology, a post he has held since May 2013. “I am currently the only one from Asia-Pacific on the editorial board for BJUI Knowledge,” he reveals. “In fact, they are flying me up to London for an editorial board meeting in October, and I realise that there are no Asians except me - the others are from England, Europe and North America.”

He is concurrently the Deputy Director of the Asian School of Urology. He is in charge of the School’s academic curriculum, which serves to educate and train other urologists in Southeast Asia, Indochina, Sri Lanka, Australia and New Zealand. He is also one of three cochairmen of the WHO 2nd International Consultation on Urinary Stone Diseases in Paris.

This is a gathering of experts to discuss the latest developments in urinary stone disease and set international guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of stones. Each co-chairman represents the continents of the Americas, Europe and Asia; Dr Wong, of course, represents Asia. “It is a privilege to be given this appointment as this reflects my standing in the international urology community,” he adds.

Another international role that Dr Wong has under his belt is on the Board of Directors of the US-based Endourological Society. The society publishes an internationally renowned medical journal of its own. “I was appointed as one of the Board Directors and served my full five-year term,” he says. “To date, no urologist from ASEAN has been appointed to the Board!”

Teaching other urologists

“At this point in time, I spend easily one hour a day doing academic and editorial work online,” says Dr Wong of his work with the British Journal of Urology.

His job is to create an online platform for urologists from around the world to be updated with the latest development and research. The platform has an interactive online scientific and clinical content, which allows doctors to acquire Continuing Medical Education points and qualify for the Specialist Exit for residents and recertification examinations for senior urologists. “The journal has equalised access to knowledge for anyone with Internet access regardless of location,” he discloses.

How many modules would there be on the platform? “We are creating about 300 modules, and I am in charge of about one-sixth of that,” Dr Wong states. In fact, he has almost finished preparing all the content he is responsible for - “I am ahead of schedule”, he quips. But Dr Wong doesn’t necessarily produce all the content himself. With his regular and active participation in international urology conferences, Dr Wong has maintained friendships and collaborated with many urologists of world renown, and they are only too happy to contribute their knowledge and expertise.

“For instance, I will call my good friend, who is Chairman of Urology from Duke University and an expert in a specific area of urology, to write a module for the journal. With an excellent IT team, we will turn it into an online module with interesting and interactive tools, including high-quality animation,” he shares.

Dr Wong feels that his amiable nature, openmindedness and tons of hard work have helped tremendously in this aspect of his work. “The fact that I worked in the US, my board directorship was in an American body, and I am lecturing regularly on the international circuit helps,” he surmises. “I just have to email them and they will work with one of their fellows to write the module.” He insists that friendship and camaraderie are great facilitators to get great minds to work and contribute to a common cause. “The greatest benefit from all this hard work over the past 15 years has been friendship, not just between doctors but also between our families as well.”

Organising workshops

As deputy director of the Asian School of Urology, Dr Wong has to plan academic programmes in collaboration with various regional urology bodies.

“This year, I have organised surgical training workshops in Sri Lanka and Thailand, and I am going to Myanmar next. Next year, the plan is Indonesia, Philippines and Singapore,” he states.

With his go-getter nature, it is not difficult to see Dr Wong working with other Asian heads of national urology medical bodies to conduct workshops for their members, and then coaxing other experts to be speakers on relevant topics. “I enjoy the challenge of putting together a high-quality programme that will benefit many doctors,” he says with a smile.

Dr Wong’s warm and amicable nature is not reserved only for fellow surgeons. He has strong ties with other players in the medical industry, such as medical equipment producers and pharmaceutical companies, which provide crucial logistical support for these workshops.

Hotel Management And Engineering?

Not many in the medical fraternity know this, but they almost lost Dr Wong to hotel management or engineering - these were careers that he was seriously contemplating before a seed was planted in his mind to study medicine instead.

Although he fared poorly in his Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), he recovered to do “very well” in his A-levels. From a young age, he knew that he was a people person and longed for a job that required lots of interaction with people - “I felt that I wanted to explore hotel management at Cornell University with the Shangri-la Scholarship in 1979.” At the same time, he was toying with the idea of studying engineering as his brother did as an undergraduate at Oxford. Despite doing well in physics, chemistry and mathematics, he was advised by his brother that he was not suitable for engineering. “It was tough to accept that my brother was right!”

Then came the conversation that completely changed Dr Wong’s life. It was with a cousin who happened to be a doctor. When it came to the inevitable question of what Dr Wong wished to do with his life, that person opened up about his own experience with medicine. “He said that medicine is one of those few professions that, when someone comes to you when they need you, they leave you a better person,” Dr Wong recalls. “He said that he really enjoyed his work because he can help people.”

“So I said, ‘Wah! Sounds like hotel management.’ Because, in a sense, you are making people happy.” Although Dr Wong’s response sounded flippant, the cousin’s words turned on a switch in his mind. Between his Pre-U 2 preliminary exams and the actual A-levels, Dr Wong abandoned all thoughts of engineering and hotel management, and decided to focus on medicine.

Acing The Interview

“In the late 1970s, it was my impression that the government was encouraging top high school students towards humanities, accountancy, business administration and professions other than medicine to spread Singapore talent across the various industries,” Dr Wong reminisces. “So doing well in 1979 was a real problem, not a blessing, as I was keen on doing medicine!”

Which was why, when he was invited for an interview for a spot in the Faculty of Medicine at the National University of Singapore, Dr Wong decided to go for broke. That year, there were 299 interviewees, but the fact remains that the majority of the top scorers will be cut after the interview. “In an interview where you are almost certain that you will be kicked out, you have to hold their attention. It did not help that the top A level student of 1979 was in the same room!” recalls an animated Dr Wong.

“I remember that the interviewers looked completely bored with us. For the most part, the interviews were only six to seven minutes long, and often the same question was asked: ‘Why do you want to study medicine?’ The answer was usually, ‘Do good and save the world’.”

When it came to Dr Wong’s turn, he managed to hold the panel’s attention for a good 40 minutes. “I told lots of interesting stories and kept them entertained throughout. I survived and even got a PSC scholarship to study medicine at the end of the process,” he adds enthusiastically. For more about what Dr Wong and the panellists chatted about, check out the sidebar.

Choosing A Speciality

Dr Wong was inspired to take up surgery after meeting two surgeons who were missionaries in Africa during his undergraduate days. Then in 1990, he suffered a urinary stone, “the closest to labour pains any man can experience”, which he took as a sign to specialise in urology. After finishing his residency in urology, Dr Wong decided to train and work overseas.

He was supposed to only spend one year in the US, courtesy of a Ministry of Health sponsorship. But, deciding that he needed more surgical experience, he took no-pay leave for another year of training in the US. Although he had no salary, he felt it was worth the sacrifice because he got to train with a top American urologist, Professor James E. Lingeman, who was famous for his expertise in kidney stones and the prostate.

Dr Wong is not the type to weigh the business potential or the glamour quotient of a medical speciality before taking the plunge. “I had no idea if it was going to be a fulfilling speciality,” he confesses. “But I felt that, since I had the kidney stones, and everything was going that way, and I managed to get in, so I just carried on.”

When it comes to his clinic, “my top priority is to give the patient my best advice based on the latest medical guidelines; what you decide after that is up to you”. The father of three girls, whose wife works with him as a fertility specialist, has an interesting work ethos: “Not everyone who walks into my clinic is my patient; my sole purpose is to encourage and give best direction for him or her to get better, regardless of whether I am the main caregiver.”

Urologist of International Standing

Dr Wong, who is 56 this year, is pleased that he has achieved international recognition and standing among his peers. “If you asked me what surprises me, it’s that I reached international standing even though I have been in private practice for 10 years,” he reflects. “I am now more academic than I ever was at SGH.”

How long will he keep up this pace of work? “To me, it’s about whether I am enjoying what I am doing and whether it has a positive impact on patients and training of regional urologists. If yes, then I will stay on,” he says. “For now I love what I do, and the practice allows me to spend quality time with my lovely wife and three daughters.”

One thing is for sure: he is not ready to retire. “This is definitely not my last place of call and I look forward to the next chapter of my life with all its fresh challenges.”

Dr Michael Wong

Medical Director & Senior Consultant Urologist
FAMS (Urology), FICS (USA), FRCS (Edinburgh),
M Med (Surgery), MBBS (S’pore)

Dr Michael Wong is a Senior Consultant Urologist who is internationally recognized for his surgical expertise and academic contribution to the field of Urology, in particular the subspecialized field of minimally invasive Endourology.

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