The Master and Apprentice Surgeons Who Shun Outdated Traditions
The mentor-mentee system in surgical training is a bit like in martial art movies, where the master takes in apprentices and then passes on skills from one generation to the next. In the 135 years since HKUMed’s founding, we have not only passed down expertise but also created space for new concepts and ideas.
Continuing our stories of mentor-mentee pairs, we interviewed two surgeons — Dr Ian Wong, Clinical Assistant Professor, and Professor Simon Law, Chair Professor, who are both from the Department of Surgery, School of Clinical Medicine. We looked at how the pair shunned the mindset that “mentor is always right” to grant junior surgeons the room to discover medical breakthroughs.
How did this mentor-mentee relationship come about?
Dr Wong: Back when I was in medical school, I took Professor Law’s class, thinking this teacher is young, skilful and charming. My dream had always been to become a surgeon. Soon after my residency ended, I joined the esophageal and upper gastrointestinal surgery team because of its long history, global reputation and the diversity of surgical techniques involved.
Professor Law: Ian’s performance in the surgical training was brilliant. I was very happy to learn of his interest in esophageal and upper gastrointestinal surgery. It’s not easy to engage in this specialty. It’s not a popular choice and a lot of effort is required to deal with complex operations. And it’s even rarer to find someone who’s also interested in academia. Ian is humble and inquisitive, qualities much needed for a surgeon. His independent thinking stands out among up-and-coming doctors. I see a lot of potential in him so, of course, I was happy to make it happen.
Can you describe Professor Law’s mentoring style?
Dr Wong: Professor Law is very supportive and has always had faith in me. He’s helped me develop professional networks and supported me to pursue the type of research I want to conduct. For instance, in 2019, our surgery department became the first in Asia to successfully perform a magnetic sphincter augmentation for gastroesophageal reflux disease. I came across this new surgical method when training in the US and suggested that we bring it to Hong Kong. Compared to the traditional anti-reflux procedure, the novel treatment prevents changes to the anatomy of the stomach and has fewer side effects. Even though it’s a common surgery in Western countries, we had to lobby hard and provide evidence before we could perform it on a patient in Hong Kong. Professor Law not only supported my idea but also provided a lot of practical help.
Whether it’s a personal or work-related issue, or suggestions for the department, I never hesitate to bring it up for discussion. Besides, we’re both fathers to three children, so I talk to him about family life as well.
Professor Law: Doctors have traditionally been trained through mentorship and this process has changed with time. In the past, surgeons always said: “I’ve performed this surgery for 20 years, so you must copy me precisely.” However, this attitude is outdated. Our field is constantly evolving, no one can be good at everything. Even within their own speciality, a doctor’s bound to have weaknesses. This is why a team should help one another. I hope our team members can develop their strengths and surpass me. Rather than expecting my juniors to follow my ways, I encourage them to explore new methods. My philosophy is that we should give new doctors more opportunities to unleash their potential.
Could you share some memorable moments between the two of you?
Professor Law: The most memorable thing has been seeing Ian’s work gradually gaining recognition. Around three years ago, his research got published in a top surgical academic journal — Annals of Surgery — for the first time. I felt ecstatic for him because he’s got such potential. I see great things ahead for him.
Dr Wong: Professor Law and I are co-writing a piece on a chapter about the esophagus in the highly respected surgical textbook “Bailey & Love’s Short Practice of Surgery”. This will be another achievement co-created with my ‘master’. The old leading the new, master and apprentice working together to write academic articles. I find this to be an effective working style, so I’ve adopted it with my own students. Each piece of research that gets recognised motivates us to push on.
As a mentor, what kind of help do you want to provide to students?
Dr Wong: I’m currently serving as a preceptor for first- and second-year medical students. I also take in third-year medical students as research interns during their enrichment year. For clinical year students, I mainly teach in small groups for specialty clerkship. Although back-to-back small group teaching takes up a lot of time, it enables me to assess each student’s progress. I enjoy teaching. I find satisfaction when students develop an interest in surgery, and I can then pass on my knowledge to them.
Professor Law: As a senior doctor, it’s natural to share your knowledge, experience, network and to help your juniors to grow. As a teacher, you shouldn’t take credit for your juniors’ work. Just like the magnetic sphincter augmentation for gastroesophageal reflux disease, Ian led it. We attributed the success to him, I was merely assisting. Secondly, we should establish our learning objectives. As teachers, sometimes people get obsessed with teaching more difficult concepts as if they want to prove their capabilities. However, that can scare students away. Instead, we should be clear about what is appropriate for students at each stage. Thirdly, don’t be stingy when it comes to teaching. In martial arts movies, the master always holds back a trick for himself in case a disciple turns on him. However, this shouldn’t be the case for medicine, we must share selflessly and hope that the next generation will surpass us.