Dr Karen Chan on Striving to Nurture Creative Ideas in Obstetrics and Gynaecology
Chance propelled Dr Karen Chan into obstetrics and gynaecology. During her first job in a London Accident and Emergency department, she worked closely with many specialties, gradually weighing her career options.
But she was most impressed by the empathetic and calm gynaecologist who acted quickly and gently to treat a patient who was bleeding heavily from a miscarriage.
Twenty years on, as she steps into the role of Chairperson of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at HKUMed, Dr Chan hopes to encourage her team to maintain the human touch exemplified by that London doctor.
We sat down with the specialist in gynaecological cancers to learn about her vision for the department.
Describe your path to becoming Chairperson of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology
In reality, I didn’t actually plan this. It’s not that I started off aiming directly to be in this position.
I came to this department in 2002 as a trainee and completed my training in general O&G and then I sub-specialised in gynae oncology, which is treating cancer patients. I worked my way up, gaining more and more skills and becoming more and more specialised.
Queen Mary Hospital is a teaching hospital, so we are exposed to a lot of teaching activities, and naturally, I take part in all of them. There’s also the research component. Because we are a clinical department a lot of the research is clinical-based, on actual patients. We’re fortunate to have a lab as well, allowing us to do basic science research.
I have a lot of interests. I like the teaching, I like the research. And obviously I like treating patients, otherwise, I wouldn’t be a doctor.
I’ve found that if you do something well, you get encouraged. And then you’ll put more effort into it and you do it even better, it creates a positive feedback loop.
What first drew you to this field?
I enjoy the opportunities this specialty gives me to interact with patients and also the general culture of the specialty.
This specialty is one that’s got excitement to it and there are many ways you can solve problems. The people are generally empathetic, have good communication skills and they make the patients feel comfortable. It’s a very humane specialty.
What are you most looking forward to in this role?
Before I became the department chairperson, I was very focused on one thing — gynae oncology — but now I have a better overview of what needs to be achieved as a whole. Now I can balance the resources to ensure the whole department can thrive instead of just one part of it excelling.
And since becoming the chairperson, I have actively joined Faculty and University-level meetings to gain a better understanding of their goals. This means I can better plan how my department can work synergistically with the Faculty and the University.
What’s your vision for the department?
I hope that I can bring the department together as an enthusiastic, forward-thinking department that people are happy to work in and feel that they have a future and opportunities to develop. I also want to promote a culture of teamwork and leave some room for creativity.
At the end of the day, I am just one person. Everything cannot be based on just one person’s ideas because it won’t go very far that way.
The University nowadays has very high expectations in terms of first-class teaching and first-class research, which I think we have the ability to do, but is something we still have to work towards.
However, I wouldn’t want for us to become top of Hong Kong or top of the world at the expense of morale. Instead, I want everyone to have a spontaneous, intrinsic urge to achieve and to be good.
What are the greatest challenges your specialty faces today and how will you work to tackle them?
Gynae cancer-wise we have the advantage that there are more treatment modalities available today. And with better instruments and technology, we are also managing more complicated surgery. The number of patients may not be rising but the workload is rising, which means more demand for manpower and resources.
The best care nowadays is usually multidisciplinary. So, we need good collaboration with all the specialties. Meanwhile, it’s difficult to know what the ideal care pattern should be like. For example, for an ovarian cancer patient, we diagnose them, we operate on them and after the operation they will need chemotherapy or other target therapies, which we also provide. We follow them up and deal with the cancer recurrences when they arise. This gives great continuity of care. It is reassuring for the patients to have the same group of care providers walking through the journey with them, even to the end. This means our gynaecological oncologists will need to be constantly updated in many areas. This works at Queen Mary, but this kind of model may not be feasible for the rest of Hong Kong.
How will you nurture the next generation of researchers and clinicians?
I believe it’s important to create a positive feedback loop. If you take care of your patients well, then they will respect you, so a good rapport develops between the patient and the doctor. Doctors then get more satisfaction from the job and are willing to go one step further for their patients. We have to enhance this feedback loop.
Ideally, we’ll give our people the room to deliver the best care they can, and this goes for the research as well. If they have a creative idea, we must try to see how it can be developed. Sometimes young people need to explore for themselves what works and what doesn’t, so we want to guide them to make this initially unworkable idea work, instead of shooting it down completely.
Gradually over time their ideas will become more creative, more workable and more impactful.
Do you have any advice for students who are interested in obstetrics and gynaecology?
If they want to train in O&G, apart from being very dedicated to the job, they also have to have some ambition otherwise they won’t reach a higher level. They also need to be able to work as a team.
O&G is busy and it’s quite a high-pressure specialty. You need to possess very quick judgement, be calm under pressure and be able to communicate well when stressed.
My advice to students is that you need to be prepared for pressurised environments and hard work, but the satisfaction is tremendous.
You’ve got the opportunity to develop a good rapport with your patients and you can work with your patients in a partnership, which can be very satisfying.
This interview has been edited for length.