Charting a new course often requires taking a hard look
at how things can be improved and mobilising others
to make change a reality. For Mrs Tan Shook Fong, 74,
and her fellow medical professionals, the goal was
nothing less than to make pharmaceutical care
in Singapore the best in Asia.

Mrs Tan applied to study pharmacy at the University of Singapore after her A-levels. All she knew about the pharmacy course was that it would take three years to complete – short enough, she felt – and that it had a lot to do with chemistry, a subject she loved. After completing her tertiary education, Mrs Tan started work as a pharmacist at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) in 1967.

There were only five pharmacists then, including myself, manning SGH Pharmacy. Some 800 patients would call at the pharmacy every day, so our small waiting room was always overcrowded. Pharmacy assistants would push medicine out to patients and provide dosage instructions through a hatch in the wall.

Much of our work was tedious and slow. Medicine tablets came in big bottles and boxes. If a patient needed 90 tablets, an assistant would have to count them out and put them in a paper envelope. Another assistant would then check that the dosage was correct.

Back then, hospital pharmacists were also responsible for making medicines like mixtures, ointments, creams and lotions that weren’t manufactured by the Government. So patients would bring all sorts of containers – ketchup bottles, soy sauce bottles; whatever they could spare – to collect their medicine.

When Mrs Tan became SGH’s Head Pharmacist in 1979, she set out to modernize her chosen vocation. Among her initiatives: patient counseling, computerizing medicine records and raising standards for pharmacists and their assistants. A drug information service was also set up for doctors and patients. As SGH underwent a major rebuilding in the early 1980s, Mrs Tan and her team seized the opportunity to start a new. Dr Kwa Soon Bee, then Medical Director of SGH, wanted modern amenities for patients, and he said to her, “Mrs Tan, why don’t you look around at counters all over Singapore and tell me which one is the best?”

So we introduced a pharmacy counter similar to a bank’s service counter, with a whole row of dispensing assistants and pharmacists serving the patients. This was more welcoming, and patients, now that they could see the staff, could ask more questions about their medication. Our “open concept” counter was a first for pharmacies in Southeast Asia, if not Asia. Many medical professionals from neighbouring countries came to learn from us. We really wanted to make pharmacy in Singapore top in Asia, if not the world!

The rapid progress of pharmacy in Singapore over the decades.

The modernisation drive intensified under Mrs Tan’s watch, and in 1990, she was appointed Deputy Director of the Pharmaceutical Department at the Ministry of Health (MOH) before being promoted to Chief Pharmacist in 1995. Another initiative of Mrs Tan’s team was improving the drug registration process. MOH regulated drugs entering Singapore to ensure their quality and safety, but because Singapore lacked the expertise then for drug control, drug applications were usually held for at least a year for review before being approved for sale.

We knew we could do better. If drugs could be released earlier, our patients would benefit. So our first task was to shorten the registration time. There were files; plenty of files. We worked overtime to streamline processes and reduce our backlog. I also signed approvals into the wee hours of the morning. Eventually, we cut the time taken to register drugs by half.

For her contributions to pharmacy, Mrs Tan was awarded the Public Administration Medal (Silver) in 2003. Looking back at her career, she says a passion to serve was what sustained her.

It’s ingrained in me that any work I do should be well thought out and delivered promptly. We implemented certain ideas because they were advances for pharmacy and medicine in Singapore. I can tell you now that pharmacy here is leading the way. Other countries have placed more emphasis on pharmaceutical research, but when it comes to serving patients, we’re really doing it well. Pharmacy in Singapore has arrived