Please Mind the Platform Gap (Universities Edition): NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine

By Kang Yi Xi (15S03N)
Photos courtesy of Tan Yeong Tze Wilnard

Thinking about which university to apply to, or already a J2 beginning your early admission applications? Raffles Press brings you our Please Mind the Platform Gap (Universities Edition), a series of articles dedicated to providing information on Rafflesian alumni’s experiences at their respective universities. Read our previous interview with University of Cambridge undergraduate Samantha Chan here, MIT undergraduate Liu Aofei here, and Harvard undergraduate Chew Chia Shao Wei here.

The MBBS – undoubtedly one of the most popular degree choices amongst Rafflesians (and their parents), as evinced by the scores of students who turn up for career talks conducted by medical professionals. Fortunately for the aspiring doctors within our school, one need not look to foreign lands to gain a quality education in the medical sciences. The National University of Singapore’s Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine can certainly hold a candle to other medical schools throughout the world, for it is currently ranked as the 2nd-best medical school in Asia and the 21st-best worldwide by Quacquarelli Symonds. RJ alumnus Tan Yeong Tze Wilnard, a 4th-year medical student at NUS and the President of the 65th NUS Medical Society’s Executive Committee, shares his thoughts on life in NUS and more in this interview with Raffles Press.

Profile

Press (P): What CCA you were in back in RJ, and what subject combination did you take?

Wilnard (W): I was in Gavel Club and the Medical Society. I took BCME and was in the Biology RA.

NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine

P: Could you provide us with a brief overview of the course you’re taking?

W: Medicine in NUS is divided broadly into pre-clinical years and clinical years. The pre-clinical years are sub-divided into normal anatomy and physiology (Year 1) and abnormal anatomy and physiology (Year 2). The clinical years on the other hand can be described as Year 3: Core rotations (Medicine, Surgery, Orthopaedics, Family Medicine and Paediatrics), Year 4: Other rotations (Emergency Medicine, Anesthesia, Obstetrics and Gynecology, Ophthalmology, ENT, Pathology and Psychiatry) and finally Year 5: Revision cum internship year.

In your pre-clinical years, your days are dominated by lectures and tutorials similar to what you have in JC. After these lectures and tutorials, you will be free to do anything you like, from revising for the next lesson or hanging out with friends around the foosball table. As a clinical year student, your day typically begins in the wards, when you follow doctors in the wards for ward rounds. Subsequently, your day may be peppered with tutorials and self-directed learning.

Wilnard (second from left) and his clinical group-mates vacationing in Malaysia
Wilnard (second from left) and his clinical group-mates vacationing in Malaysia

P: What do you appreciate about the medical course itself?

W: I’ll explore this question from two angles: about medicine in general and about medicine in NUS.

Firstly, about medicine in general, one thing that I’m constantly reminded about every day is that it is a very personal profession – from the content I study to the information that I get access to. During a medical interview – or ‘clerking’ as doctors call it – I often have to ask patients about intimate details of their lives, from medical issues to issues about their sex lives, in order to get to the bottom of their illnesses. This highly privileged position is something unique to the medical profession, allowing me to aid people at the heart of their problems.

Secondly, I thoroughly enjoy the interaction that I get through medicine. I feel it gives me the opportunity to build a relationship with people, and that makes it a highly meaningful job. Of course this is an ideal; in reality, the burdens of the job kick in and can turn you into a mindless robot. In times when you are really busy and have many patients to see, you may not even say a ‘Hi, how are you feeling?’; instead opting to ask targeted questions and moving on. Medicine, like any other job, can have the potential to be monotonous, demanding and terribly boring. Yet, there is the potential for it to be so much more, and that’s what attracts me to it!

The other thing that I really like about medicine is its diversity. There is always something for everyone. Contrary to popular belief, a doctor may not necessarily like talking to patients. True, the front-line specialties like family medicine, internal medicine etcetera require some communication skills on the part of the doctors, but there are specialties like radiology, pathology and anaesthesia which cater to those who may be more introverted.

Moving on to what I like about NUS Medicine, I must say I thoroughly enjoy the opportunities. In NUS Medicine, you can do virtually anything you want. Research?  Sure, there are mentors around to help you! Organising events to fight for a cause? Yes, there is help out there to teach you how to get there. There’re almost no restrictions to what you want to do, except for dangerous activities, ethically questionable ones and your imagination.

P: How does the medical course equip you with the practical skills required to succeed as a doctor?

W: In order to learn how to manage a patient with, say, a heart attack, you can’t be going to a patient who actually has one and expect a tutor to teach you then; he should be attending to the patient first. So this naturally leads to problems, because students cannot learn first-hand from actually being in the situation. As such, the school provides simulation training. In a sense, the simulator doesn’t ‘die’, so you can really make all the mistakes (which students are prone to) and learn from them. The simulators are pretty realistic – they actually ‘breathe’ and ‘respond’. If there’s a problem with the lung sounds, you can even hear it with a stethoscope. The school also attempts to develop our patient communication skills by providing sessions for us to talk to standardised patients, who will give us feedback about our communication.

However, while you can study all the textbooks and websites you want, learning best takes place when you actually talk to a patient or see a patient’s symptoms and signs. Hence, you may never see some conditions in your entire 5 years in medical school (although these conditions are probably rarer).

P: What are the enrichment programmes available in NUS Medicine?

W: Essentially, there are two periods that are set aside for medical students to do electives: one month in Year 3 and three months in Year 4. During these periods, you can opt to do either overseas or local electives.

The overseas elective allows medical students to do a clinical posting overseas and experience a different healthcare system.  I’ll be going for my overseas attachment this year! You are allowed to do research too. Last year, when some of my friends went overseas, I stayed in Singapore to do a research elective with Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s Geriatrics department regarding dementia and the factors that affect it. I feel for the elderly population and would like to learn more about how I can help them, which was why I did the research. While it was an intensive three weeks there, I really learnt a lot from my mentor.

This is what is within the curriculum. Other enrichment activities include the Community Health Project, during which students are grouped into groups of 30 and tasked to come up with a research topic about community health and have to take it from the planning stage, to the execution stage, and finally to the analysis and writing stage. Apart from those planned within the curriculum, other activities are student-planned. For example, in medicine, communication is critical and language is one key component. As such, there are language courses that you can take in school (some of which are organised by students) to help you learn a new language like Malay, Hokkien, and Cantonese.

P: How heavy is your course workload?

W: The amount of content that you have to study is significantly greater than that in JC, as there’s really no end to how much you can study (the syllabus isn’t as clear cut as that for the A Levels). To put things into perspective, you are expected to know all the parts of the human body and how all the processes in your body work ideally within one year. In Year 2, you will learn about all the bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi that cause infections in the human body, as well as all the antibiotics that can treat them. On top of that, you will also learn all the pathologies that commonly afflict humans as well as all the drugs that can be used to treat/manage them. That’s a lot of things that have to be learnt!

But don’t worry, at the end of it, it is still manageable for two reasons: firstly, seniors have been through it, so you can too (that’s what you tell yourself to reassure yourself when it’s closer to your exams to allay your fears!); secondly, as your tutors will eventually tell you, ‘common things happen commonly’, and this holds true in exams too. Common conditions and important conditions are often the focus of the exams, so if you are able to appreciate these, you will be able to pass. To do extremely well will require you to study much more though.

Student Life

P: Tell me more about the extracurricular activities you’re involved in. What do you take part in and have you had any particularly memorable experiences?

W: Well, I’ve done quite a number of things. For one, I’ve continued playing badminton, which I stopped playing in JC because of my other commitments. Though I haven’t done so at the university level, I’ve managed to do so at the faculty level by representing medicine in the Inter-Faculty Games (IFG). There’s a lot of pride involved here, as we have come so close to winning it all for badminton over the past four years I’ve been in medical school. However, we’ve won overall champions for the IFG for 3/4 years, and that’s something that I feel very proud of because we are really a small faculty compared to giants like Engineering.

The Badminton medals won by the team from NUS Medicine during the Inter-Faculty Games
The Badminton medals won by the team from NUS Medicine during the Inter-Faculty Games

I’ve also had the opportunity to participate in plays. To be honest, I’m not musically talented at all, but I’ve managed to explore some things that I never had the opportunity to in the past, including being in the choir and acting. I won’t say I have a flair for it, but I’ve definitely enjoyed the times spent with friends doing something different!

Out of all my commitments, I must say being in the Medical Society EXCO is the biggest one, as I’ve served in it for three of my four years here. To summarise, the NUS Medical Society can be seen as a student council that organises activities for its members. All medical students in NUS are NUS Medical Society members. Activities we organise include concerts, the Dinner and Dance, plays and even parties and ceremonies. Every year, we have an inter-batch play competition called Playhouse. For this, each batch will gather actors and actresses, build the props and make the costumes, as well as get musicians and dancers to perform an hour-long play. Judges will then decide on the play that is the best. Moreover, whenever hospitals want to communicate with the students, they will go through the Medical Society to spread the word. As such, we are generally kept in the know of what goes on in the healthcare sector. Being in the EXCO has allowed me to learn about and influence some of the decisions that have been made regarding a range of issues related to education, financial aid, community service, international relations, and post-graduate life. This has sparked my interest in some of these areas.

Outside of Medicine, there are many activities going on too! It’s hard to name them all, but as far as I know, as long as you are interested in something, you are sure to find a group that caters to that interest.

P: Are there any major university-wide events, other than the inter-faculty games?

W: Rag and Flag is another major university-wide event. In Rag and Flag, faculties compete on two fronts. During Rag, faculties put up performances (usually dances) with elaborate props regarding a particular theme. Basically, it is a showcase of the creativity, energy and capabilities of each faculty. They will then be judged on how well they do against other faculties. As for Flag, faculties compete to see who can raise the most amount of money for beneficiaries.

Wilnard (on left) at Operation Theatre, a biannual charity play event put up by talents from all five years.
Wilnard (on left) at Operation Theatre, a biannual charity play event put up by talents from all five years

Campus in general

P: What’s the architecture of the campus like?

W: NUS is undoubtedly a very old campus and it is a bit incongruent. On one hand, you have really old science buildings while on the other, you have the new medical ones. While the medical buildings are new, they don’t have as many ‘common spaces’ like RI does so they may feel a bit cold. I guess it’s because NUS does not have much space left!

P: What facilities are available for students on campus? How adequately do they meet your needs?

W: Facilities-wise, NUS is extremely well-equipped. It’ll take me forever to name everything!  Anyway, for a medical student, perhaps the most important consideration is whether there are sufficient study spaces. NUS is remarkably spacious; however, when it’s nearer to the exams, you will find it a challenge to find a study space. For medical students, our calendars run separately from the rest of NUS, so in some cases, we have exams when everyone else does not. In these times, we have the choicest selection of study spaces.  I also enjoy using the sports hall to play badminton.

Advice

P: In your opinion, is there any particular type of student that would thrive in NUS Medicine?

W: The open-minded and motivated student will likely thrive in NUS Medicine. When I say thrive, I refer to doing things well and enjoying what he/she is doing. Additionally, the environment can be a pressure cooker, with much to learn and everyone being extremely talented. Such traits can be helpful in dealing with these challenges.

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