Conversations with Sherie Tan

Sherie Tan is a doctor at Geylang Polyclinic. She obtained her medical training overseas, and shares with us on her transition into the local healthcare scene and her experiences thus far.

By Shao Xinning

I work in a polyclinic, so it’s a primary care setting. I work from 8am – 5pm on Mondays till Fridays, and I work half-days on Saturdays (8am – 12.30pm or 1pm). So we basically go in and run individual clinics, and see the patients that come.

I think it’s the variety of cases that I see in the polyclinic, due to its nature as primary care medicine. We might see from new born babies to a patient who is a hundred years old. That’s what makes it interesting for me and that’s why I enjoy it.

Practically speaking a good day would be one when I can end work on time. It is also nice to have appreciative patients and positive feedback from those that have recovered. It’s small things like that that make me feel a bit happier, that gives the satisfaction.

Yes, especially when the manpower is a bit short or when the cases are a bit more complicated. However, working in a polyclinic setting generally stills allows us to end at an earlier timing as compared to working in a hospital setting. 

It can also get pretty tiring when cases get complicated, such as having uncooperative patients or cases that get delayed. I will end up having to cut down on time spent on other patients to clear the queue of the day, can it can get pretty stressful.

However, you’ll learn to overcome different problems with each unique patient. You cannot treat every patient the same way. The way you treat patient A may not work with patient B. Some patients may need a softer approach, while others may prefer a more directive and facts-based approach.

I have been in the polyclinic for about two years, and I’m still doing my professional exams. So I think I’ll stay in the polyclinic for at least another one or two more years. There is always that question whether or not you want to go into the private practice, because I’m now in the GP setting and hence, in government service. Here, I feel like I have more opportunities to work with patients who have multi-faceted problems, such as financial and social problems.

The first year was very very tough for me, because I came back from the UK and the cultures are quite different. People there are generally more relaxed there, but here in Singapore it is stressful. Expectations are placed on you, so you have to keep up very fast. And it’s not just accommodating to the expectations, but also very practical things like learning the computer systems here, how the hospital operates, how to order certain blood tests when you are seeing a patient. It just boils down to very practical things that takes up a lot of your time, because it’s not just as simple as going there and carrying out the blood test. You have to know the steps to do it. There’s a lot of admin and paperwork to learn to do – but I survived (laugh).

I really appreciated the help I got from my local colleagues who really took the extra effort to help me. I think that makes a very big difference. Personally I do put a lot of pressure on myself, and it was nice to have some leeway to alleviate that stress.

Yes, I guess. And also because a lot of them trained overseas as well, so they have been through the transition themselves, and everyone has been a junior doctor themselves. I guess, and I choose to believe that doctors are supposed to be more empathetic and “nicer” (laugh), and the people I met were all really nice. All of us who came back from overseas supported each other, telling each other that “it is okay, we’ll learn from mistakes” and I think that’s very important, having people on the same boat as you. So you don’t feel that you are all alone or demotivated.

I wish someone would have told me to take one step at a time, and that there will always be an end.  So be it a good or bad day, there will always be an end and the sun will always rise the next day. There will always be another day and you can always start afresh. I guess linking to that is don’t beat yourself up too much. And the important thing is to know that if you made a mistake, acknowledge it and learn from it. The worst thing is to make a mistake and try to comfort yourself that “it’s okay” but you don’t learn from it. That’s just asking for more mistakes.

For GPs in Singapore, I feel there are going to be more patients requiring primary care.  With an ageing population, we get a rise in chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension. People are getting these problems even earlier, unfortunately. I also want to give my patients more than five minutes, because we only have five minute per patient in the polyclinic. But that can only happen if we have more manpower. That said, we are opening up a lot of polyclinics in Singapore. They (the government) are expanding because they see it growing, so they are going the right direction.


Sherie Tan: Adaptability, communication, continuous learning, and not on the list, perseverance and empathy. Empathy is easy to say but whether or not you can really do it is a different story. If you can, it makes life easier for you also. Empathy helps your patients feel your sincerity, and in turn they can trust you. Beyond talking, it’s also about listening so that you can better stand i the shoes of your patients and understand their circumstances and their reality.

Yes, expressing yourself. I think communication is not only with your patients but with your colleagues as well, because you work as a team. You work with other doctors, nurses and lab staff especially in the hospital settings, maybe not so in the polyclinic. It is easy to say that “I’m the doctor and I made all the decisions”, but you are not going to be able to survive the day if your nurses are not there to help you. What we do is only the decision-making, but the implementing of the care plan also requires expertise from the social workers and care managers as well.

If you want to get into medical schools in Singapore, you unfortunately need to be a straight A student. But that being said, there are medical schools overseas that you can get in without getting your straight As(laugh), so it’s still possible, but I think you have to be willing to put into the hard work.

Hard work is also not just in terms of studying, but being able to adapt to changes. Because medicine is ever-changing. What you learn in the textbook this year might differ the next year. It’s always changing. So I think that’s very important now.

It’s also good to express it in your CV if you have done electives with the hospitals, to show that you have dipped your toes in it (medicine), you have seen how working in a hospital is like because when you are in junior college you don’t actually know how it’s like in the real world. It’s possible to do attachment in junior college because I have done it myself.

But even if you don’t do it in a proper hospital, clinics are possible as well. When I was deciding whether or not to do medicine, dentistry was something I was exploring as well. Because to me it was patient interaction, and I like using my hands. It helps YOU to realize whether that’s really what you want as well.

Most importantly, I think you need to ask yourself “what kind of life you want to have”. Because your job should make you happy, and it should be what you want to do in life. Don’t do something because your friends or parents. Your priorities and interest change along the years, but it is most important to go with what you think you want for yourself. Do not be too externally influenced by other people.