The Business Times - Case study: Going back to school has never gone out of fashion for her
Pauline Tan, head of Yishun Community Hospital, has signed up for training throughout her career.
Through her 39 years in the nursing profession, Pauline Tan has never let herself feel inadequate.
Whenever she was thrown in the deep end, she made sure she trod water, stayed afloat.
For her, it has meant arming herself with the skills and knowledge needed for the positions she was entrusted with.
By going back to school at more than one point in her career, she picked up her Bachelor of Nursing and Graduate Diploma in Nursing Administration, and later, a Masters of Science in Asia-Pacific Human Resource Management and then a Masters in Public Administration.
In 2011, she crowned her academic achievements with an honorary Doctor of Nursing, conferred by her alma mater La Trobe University in Melbourne, for her contributions to nursing. She is the first nurse in Singapore to receive this honour.
Today, the 56-year-old heads the 428-bed Yishun Community Hospital (YCH), which provides intermediate care for convalescing patients who do not need to be in an acute-care hospital.
She is the first nurse in Singapore to attain chief-executive-officer (CEO) status.
“If you ask me, I would say I never dreamed that one day I would become a CNO (Chief Nursing Officer) or a CEO,” she says.
She only ever wanted to be a nurse. “It must seem terrible but I was not really ambitious when I was young,” she says.
She had started out at age 18 as an enrolled nurse, the lowest in the pecking order of nurses.
Nursing was then a job that paid as one was being trained, and being the eldest child, she had to work to supplement the household income.
Her family was poor. Her father was a delivery man who was supporting the family of seven on his meagre salary.
Ms Tan says: “At that time, we were all living in a rental flat and I needed to find a job as soon as I was done with my studies. So nursing fit my needs best.”
Her choice of career was also partly influenced by a neighbour, who used to talk about her day in the wards.
“I was so awed by what she did, how she touched lives, that I wanted nothing else but to become like her,” Ms Tan recalls.
Moving to Greater Things
She hasn’t regretted her decision to become a nurse. “It was exactly like what my neighbour had described.”
From the get-go, she loved being in patient care. She was interested in the work and learned fast.
“I caught the attention of my supervisors and soon, I was moving from the wards to the intensive care unit and then to the operating theatre. If it had been today’s landscape, I would have been made an advance practice nurse in no time,” she says.
Then came the day she was summoned to see the matron.
“Matrons then were not like matrons today. They were fierce and you would just shake when you got summoned. My first thought then was that I had done something wrong. I went to her office with a lot of trepidation.”
But instead of a scolding, the matron tossed her an application form and told her that she was being recommended for a course in administration under a World Health Organization (WHO) scholarship.
The young Ms Tan wasn’t thrilled. She explains: “Administration was the last thing I wanted to do. … Ask anyone who is clinically trained. None of us wanted to do administration work.”
She was the youngest among the applicants to be picked for the scholarship, and at 20, she left for La Trobe University for a degree programme in nursing and a graduate diploma in nursing administration.
“I must admit I was quite miserable. For one, I hated administration and for another, I missed and was worried about my family. But I told myself I needed to love the course in order to do well. So I buckled down and finished it successfully in two years. There was no turning back from administration after that.”
When she returned in 1983, she was not pleased with how nurses were being treated or viewed in Singapore.
“In any hospital setting, nurses make up 60 per cent of the workforce. I felt there must be a way to optimise their potential, harness their capability and grow collective wisdom among them.
“I felt that more could be done to empower the work and help nurses gain recognition in society.”
She felt that she needed training to become a better administrator, so she eyed a Masters degree.
She was then working at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), which offered her a scholarship to do a Masters in Business Administration.
She turned down the offer because she felt she needed a respite. She left TTSH in 1996 and joined Ang Mo Kio Community Hospital.
It was during her time there that she enrolled in the National University of Singapore Business School and underwent a Masters-level programme in Human Resource.
But she says it was during her stint at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) that she did her best work in human-resource management.
She had been there hardly a year as its senior manager of corporate planning when its director of nursing retired, and she was offered the post.
“It was like a duck taking to water. I went back to nursing and I was able to apply what I learnt in my studies and transformed the culture.”
For example, she facilitated the introduction of e-learning in IMH, and took part and headed research into nursing outcomes and quality-improvement projects.
“The IMH nurses just enjoyed coming to work, they contributed (their ideas) and when they did, the whole organisation, the culture transformed. We killed a lot of the sacred cows at IMH and I was able to apply what I had learned.”
Her success came to the notice of the Ministry of Health, which asked her to take on the role as chief nursing officer (CNO).
“I did it reluctantly, because I realised that both my experience and my qualification would not put me in good stead in helping to shape policies. I needed to equip myself with the right know-how.”
Her search for a good course of study led to her enrolment at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, where she earned her Masters in Public Administration.
“That helped me in my seven-year stint at the ministry. I managed to shape some of the policies that we are seeing the results of today.”
Ms Tan was instrumental in setting up the National Nursing Taskforce in 2012, which charted the development of the profession at the national level.
Besides serving as chair or an advisory member on academic and professional committees to advance nursing excellence, she also sits on several global and regional nursing networks and committees and is an international nurse surveyor for the Joint Commission International.
Ms Tan notes that in the past, nurses saw to the basic needs of the patient - making sure patients were clean and comfortable, eating well and taking their medication.
“But today, she is expected to guide junior nurses, participate in quality-improvement initiatives and empower patients and care-givers in their personal health management.”
'’Be the Best That You Can Be’‘
In 2014, Ms Tan resigned from her post as CNO; she told the permanent secretary for Health and the director of Medical Services that it was time for new blood to take over.
But her career wasn’t over yet.
Liak Teng Lit, the group chief executive of Alexandra Healthcare, who had worked with her in forming the National Nursing Taskforce, invited her to head YCH, a post she now holds.
Ms Tan says: “I felt he was someone I would like to learn from. It was also time to go back to reality, move back to the ground and implement what I had developed and designed at the ministry.
“I think the motto that has kept me going is ‘Be the best that you can be’,” she says, adding that she is glad that the government is now signalling a move away from academic achievements and the emphasis on grades in school.
“Actually, when you make grades your end goal, then you just pursue grades at the expense of character development, at the expense of the learning, at the expense of enjoying the process,” she says.
Apart from running the community hospital, she is trying to change the mindset the public has towards nurses.
“Nurses have moved beyond just carrying bedpans and and cleaning backsides. Yet, the perception of this as their job is still being perpetuated.
“I guess it is the language we use. Take Singapore Airlines for example. SQ girls are attendants in the sky, yet they use social messaging to shape the minds of others that they are a great way to fly.”
The change in mindset must start from the time one is young, she adds. To this end, YCH runs a programme under which pupils from The Little Skool-House By-The-Lake, a nearby preschool, visit the hospital once a week to mingle with the patients.
“They come and work together on cooking, art and craft. That promotes inter-generational bonding.
“The kids are also able to observe what nurses, therapists, pharmacists and dietitians do, so when they grow up, the impression that they would have picked up of nurses will, hopefully, stay on their minds and when they make their career choices.”
Ms Tan is adamant that her own learning journey will carry on, even after she retires.
“I have my sights set on soft skills. I could learn to play an instrument or even some form of art and craft. I would be able to perform when I return to volunteer at the hospitals - if I am permitted to,” she adds, laughing.
2014 to present: CEO, Yishun Community Hospital
2007 to 2014: Chief nursing officer (MOH) and concurrent registrar of Singapore Nursing Board
2003 to 2007: Director of nursing (IMH)
2002 to 2003: Senior manager, Corporate Planning (IMH)
2000 to 2002: Assistant director, inpatients followed by director operations (Thomson Medical Centre)
2000: Manager, Inpatient Wards (Raffles Surgicentre)
1996 to 2000: Assistant nursing administrator (Ang Mo Kio Community Hospital)
1983 to 2000: Staff nurse and progressed to assistant director nursing (TTSH)
1978 to 1981: Enrolled nurse
Source: The Business Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction.