Cover Photo: Doctor Tan Sok Chuen

Dr Tan Sok Chuen has certainly faced her fair share of gender-related biases. Here's how she fought her way to the top as she braved the male-dominated field of orthopaedics to start her own clinic

Did you know that only approximately five per cent of orthopaedic surgeons in the United States are women, according to a report by the Association of American Medical Colleges? This means that it is the lowest percentage of female representation in any medical speciality out there. 

In fact, not only is Dr Tan Sok Chuen one of only two female private orthopaedic surgeons in Singapore. She is also the only female hip and knee surgeon in Singapore and has defied all the odds to set up her own private practice, Hip & Knee Orthopaedics in the middle of a pandemic.

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However, Dr Tan was not always this confident of her space in the profession.

In fact, in her early days in the field, she had many patients and superiors who would pass her up on opportunities, ignore her opinions and make dirty jokes.

Sometimes, she even had patients who would outrightly tell her they prefer a male doctor and would openly doubt her abilities. 

"I simply had to learn to ignore them. I learnt to be confident in my own abilities without being reliant on another’s approval. I think physically I am already stronger than most girls, and maybe even some guys. I make up for my 'physical' deficiencies by accumulating more knowledge, and experience. And I think that hard work has paid off in the long run. Because after all, surgery is more about knowledge and experience," said Dr Tan. 

True enough, Dr Tan has surely shored up a wealth of information with her grit and her deep desire to continuously learn and improve herself desire all the odds stacked against her. 

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Dr Tan graduated from the National University of Singapore in 2004 with a medical degree. When she completed her post-graduate training and examinations, she was conferred the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in Trauma and Orthopaedic Surgery.

At that point, Dr Tan decided to sub-specialise in hip and knee surgery and did her clinical fellowship in 2016 at Hip & Knee Surgery at Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre in the United Kingdom. She also managed to complete a clinical fellowship at the London Health Sciences Centre in Canada. 

However, the road to reaching her eventual dream of becoming an orthopaedic surgeon was far from easy. In fact, the doctor had to endure many long hours of procedures that required her to move, manipulate and hold heavy parts of patients steadily while doing her job. 

Wanting to still have a child despite her demanding professions, Dr Tan even at one point, put her fellowship on hold because of how much radiation exposure happens in her line of work. It was not conducive to her pregnancy and so she decided to stop for a while.

However, Dr Tan wasn't going to let motherhood stop her from achieving all her career goals.

When she finally completed and came back from her fellowships, Dr Tan joined Ng Teng Fong General Hospital as a consultant where she learnt about the dynamics of a bigger organisation as well as how to navigate and collaborate while working with people of different backgrounds.

Despite how difficult it was, Dr Tan rose through the ranks in the three years that she was there to become one of the highest volume surgeons at the hospital at that time. 

During this time, Dr Tan also took up teaching and held the position of Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Clinical Faculty for Medical Undergraduate Teaching Program.  

She later moved from Ng Teng Fong General hospital to be a consultant at the Orthopedic Center for just over two years from 2019 to 2021. 

It was during this time that Dr Tan decided that it was time for her to branch out into private practice and thankfully, she found an easy co-founder in her husband who she met while the pair were in medical school together. 

"Both my husband and I subspecialise in hip and knee surgery so when we decided to open our own clinic, this was naturally a name and speciality that came to our minds. We felt that it really represented who we are and our passion," Dr Tan said. 

After a lot of hard work and persistence, Dr Tan and her husband, Dr Adrian Lau finally opened Hip & Knee Orthopaedics in April 2021 where they have, to date, served over 200 patients while specialising in evidence-based treatments and providing care for musculoskeletal conditions. 

As a trusted, highly skilled and educated female doctor in her own right, Dr Tan has also made it her mission to make sure that female doctors looking to enter a male-dominated field are bold and confident. 

"Be open to opportunities for collaboration. And be aware that sometimes the guys might be intimidated by you," she exclaimed when asked what advice she had for these young women.

She added that as a working mother, she has an acute understanding of why women should be given the opportunity to age gracefully and to have a high quality of life even in their old age which is what greatly motivates her in her work. 

With her sights set on expanding her clinic, helping more patients to live a pain-free life, and to continue to care for her young son, Dr Tan tells us how she manages it all in her own words.

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What is a typical morning like for you?

Dr Tan Sok Chuen (TSC): I like to wake up early at 5 am, do some planning for the day. I also make sure I incorporate at least one hour of exercise every morning. Usually, that's either running, Muay Thai or boxing. My breakfast is usually black coffee with no sugar and wholemeal bread or plain oats.

What does a standard workday look like for you?

TSC: My clinic starts operations start at 9 am. We do a team briefing before the clinic starts to run through the patients scheduled for the day, trace up their results and find out if there are any concerns specific to each patient. Clinic administrative issues and updates are discussed as well.

If there are surgeries scheduled in the morning, one of my staff members will meet me at the operating room to set up the scans and to do a final check for the patient.

Usually, this is followed by ward rounds of inpatients. At the end of the day, we typically review the patients as well as any urgent results that have returned during the day and we will update our patients. Thereafter we do late afternoon or evening round for the inpatients.

What do you usually have for lunch?

TSC: Lunchtime can be quite unpredictable, however, I do watch the carbs in my diet usually. I like to go for complex carbs like unrefined grains. If there are days that I have to miss my exercise, I will simply skip the carbs altogether.

Free time: overrated or underrated? Why?

TSC: I think free time is underrated. I tend to think of free time as more of “me” time which is important to me as I review the day and chart my direction.

How do you achieve a work-life balance?

TSC: I try to not open up my computer at home in the evenings. As my husband is also the co-director of the company, I avoid talking to him about work when at home. If we need to discuss work-related matters, we stay behind in the clinic to discuss them.

How do you deal with your shortcomings?

TSC: I think I can be quite quick-tempered and impulsive. So I have learnt to keep quiet when I am angry and to let the angry thoughts simmer for a while or better still, overnight before I talk to the other person. I also find running and exercise a good form of meditation for me which also helps me remove the negative energy.

How do you chase your dreams?

TSC: With persistence and grit. I think it is important to recognise that along the way there will be naysayers. However, if this is something you want to do, push on.

Keep reminding yourself of the reason why you even embarked on this. For me, it was the satisfaction of seeing patients walk again and being free from the pain that they have been suffering for years.

I have also been so blessed with support from family and friends. So do ask for help when needed and appreciate the ones who lend you a helping hand.

Risks: should you take them? Why or why not?

TSC: Certainly. But calculated risks. Taking calculated risks is important for growth.

What is the best piece of advice that you have ever gotten?

TSC: When I first came out to private practice, someone said to me, “Be affable, adept and affordable”. I think having my own private practice gives me the time and space to be personable and approachable for my patients, to listen to their concerns and address them accordingly.

To survive in the current climate, I think we also have to learn to be adaptable. Our clinic has implemented telemedicine as an option for patients who are concerned about leaving their house for their medical appointments for example.

What is the last thing you do before you go to bed?

TSC: Review the day and be grateful for it.

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