Medical social worker Jan Koh was in her teens when she began working with the underprivileged. She did volunteer work on a regular basis when she was in junior college.

After a few years of facilitating youth camps and cleaning up one-room flats, Miss Koh, 28, wondered what else she could possibly do for less fortunate Singaporeans.

While social work seemed like a natural calling, she faced some internal struggles, such as the practical “bread and butter” issues like pay.

Thinking of the future, she was often tempted to focus on subjects that would eventually lead to a career that would justify her tuition fees.

In addition, she also had to convince her mother, who had absolutely no idea what social work was. In the end, with the support of her elder siblings who had gone through the system and regretted not following their hearts, Miss Koh read social work at the National University of Singapore and became a social worker.

She joined the National Heart Centre Singapore, one of the institutions under the SingHealth Group, as a medical social worker upon her graduation, and admits to experiencing some difficult moments in her career.

For instance, there are many times she has had to put aside her judgments and values in the course of helping people.

While this fundamental tenet of social work was drummed into her repeatedly during lectures at university, her acceptance of it was academic. Putting theory into practice, however, was far from easy.

Miss Koh recalls how she once had to help fulfil the last wishes of a dying patient, which included convincing his estranged ex-wife to take a family portrait with him and the children.

This was just hours after she found out that he had sexually abused his young son in the past.

In the hospital environment, there is also the constant challenge of running against time. Patients move in and out of the acute setting very quickly, and intervention has to be up to speed.

One unique situation faced by medical social workers in a hospital setting is the need to balance timeline and numbers with quality interventions.

Says Miss Koh: “If we were to meet the patient and his family only once, we hope to be able to bring about some positive change during that one encounter.”

More than four years into the job, she still finds it challenging and extremely fulfilling. She enjoys the adrenaline boost, such as looking for resources and making plans quickly so that patient care is not delayed.

She says: “I treasure those moments I have with my patients and their loved ones, be it just listening to them vent their frustration, discussing a care plan or walking a patient through his last days of life. It is fulfilling to know that I was there for them.”

One of the care arrangement referrals that Miss Koh finds personally fulfilling is the planning of the terminal discharge — helping families to bring their loved ones home to live out their last days.

Very often, such cases involve the medical social worker advocating for the patient and helping the family to see why going home is important, while addressing the concerns of the caregivers.

In a hospital setting, Miss Koh has the privilege of learning from many different professionals when she interacts with the multidisciplinary health-care team.

There is always something new to learn at ward rounds, transplant meetings and joint family sessions.

She says: “This job is for someone who loves social interaction and has lots of energy. The qualities might seem simple, but I think a large dose of passion is needed to keep you going.” 

Sharing a piece of advice to avoid burnout for aspiring medical social workers, Miss Koh says: “Remember self-care. I take holiday breaks, chill out after work with friends and play sports at the weekends because I believe that a little rest to recharge will power me up for the long haul. And I want to be in this profession for a long time to come.”