Compassionate clinicians: Making a lasting impression

Compassionate clinicians: Making a lasting impression

Prof Lim Soon Thye believes in the importance of imparting a strong sense of empathy in Duke-NUS students, so patients remember the doctors who brought comfort when they needed it most.

Compassionate clinicians: Making a lasting impression
Prof Lim Soon Thye believes that while science and research are two key elements of medical education, empathy and effective communication skills are just as important. Photos: Duke-NUS

There are doctors who treat their patients, and then there are doctors who leave a lasting impression on patients and their families. What makes them stand apart?

“It’s the ‘heartware’, beyond the ‘hardware’ of clinical expertise, that makes the difference,” said Prof Lim Soon Thye. He should know – not only is he an outstanding clinician, he’s also responsible for training clinicians to similarly high standards at Duke-NUS Medical School as Senior Associate Dean of the Doctor of Medicine (MD) programme.

He strongly believes that while science and research are two key elements of medical education, two other skills are equally critical – empathy and effective communication.


Prof Lim encourages his students – future clinicians in their own right – to be empathetic, compassionate and communicate effectively with patients. He has ensured that Duke-NUS curriculum provides specific training in ethics and communication.

He elaborated: “You cannot excel as a clinician if you cannot relate to people’s fear and suffering. You must have a great sense of empathy. You must be able to take a systematic approach to be able to relate to the challenges that the healthcare system faces and how you can help address them.”

He cites the example of one of his former students, Dr Yvonne Chia, a Duke-NUS alumna from the class of 2017, who is treating patients with COVID-19. Dr Chia went beyond the call of duty to provide hourly updates on a COVID-19 patient’s status to his daughter until his unfortunate death in the intensive care unit. His family members, who were not able to spend time with the patient were appreciative of Dr Chia’s efforts.

Prof Lim added: “Of all the things the family of the deceased will remember, it is not the science and medicine, but the interaction with the doctor who brought comfort to them in these trying times. This is the compassion that I strive to imbibe in our students at Duke-NUS.”


Whether during pandemics like COVID-19 and SARS or during normal times, healthcare ecosystems are evolving across the world. Many countries, including Singapore, face challenges like increasing medical costs and healthcare challenges associated with ageing populations.

Prof Lim is thankful to be in a position to better prepare his students for the challenges they will face.

He said: “There are changes in how doctors are being trained in the residency system. As I am embedded in the local healthcare system, I am able to play a role in fine-tuning Duke-NUS’ American curriculum and contextualising it to Singapore, so that our students can be more plugged into the system here, and be more aligned with the national goals and the wider changes in the healthcare environment.”

He is certainly well-positioned to see these challenges first-hand as the deputy medical director (Clinical) and senior consultant in the Division of Medical Oncology at the National Cancer Centre Singapore. Additionally, he was a member of the first Asian team to win the prestigious American Association for Cancer Research Team Science Award in 2018 for research into Asian cancers.

Compassionate clinicians: Making a lasting impression
Duke-NUS' mentoring system helps students develop at their own pace and achieve their professional goals.

Having been with Duke-NUS Medical School for almost a decade, Prof Lim said that the curriculum has evolved to produce doctors who are poised to play a leadership role in local and regional healthcare systems. Over the years, emphasis has been on topically relevant issues, like population health, being future-ready for digital transformation and preparing for ageing patient demographics.

Prof Lim is also Duke-NUS’ vice-chair of Clinical Services in the Oncology Academic Clinical Programme. He reiterated that doctors must always be excellent clinicians first. But graduating clinicians must also possess good people skills. “Going into the future, doctors will have to work in a world of complexity and uncertainty. Therefore, the ability to collaborate and work in teams is an extremely important quality,” he said.


As Duke-NUS is a graduate medical school, every cohort comprises mature students with strong backgrounds in science as well as a variety of other disciplines. Each student receives a rigorous nine-month-long foundation of academic research before embarking on what Prof Lim calls “a differentiated, boutique experience”, made possible by the small cohort size.

He said: “We make a deliberate attempt to personalise students’ career paths. A strong mentoring system is in place that allows students to grow at their own pace in clinical work as well as in achieving their professional goals.”

Duke-NUS aims to provide a “buffet of opportunities” for students, with its links beyond the SingHealth Duke-NUS Academic Medical Centre (AMC) network to the wider biomedical environment, such as the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) and private institutes.

Prof Lim concluded: “When Duke-NUS first started, our vision was to mold doctors who are exemplary clinicians and more, and that vision remains steadfast.

“Today, as we complete 15 years of an impactful journey, we are looking beyond science and research to nurture patient-centric doctors who will become excellent clinician educators, innovators, scientists and more, to be relevant in Singapore’s evolving healthcare and biomedical landscape.”

Find out more about how clinicians are contributing to the fight against COVID-19 at Duke-NUS.