A Noble Profession

Prof Dato’ Dr Ikram Shah bin Ismail

Director of Universiti Malaya Medical Centre

‘Let the doctor do the worrying for your health,’ some may say. But there are times when the human body gives up on you without any forewarning, and this is when you do a fair share of the worrying as well. EZ seeks out Professor Dato’ Dr Ikram Shah bin Ismail, Director of Universiti Malaya Medical Centre, who provides his insight on what makes medicine the occupation of the compassionate and Malaysian conundrums with quality doctors.

1985 marked the induction of Professor Dato’ Dr Ikram Shah bin Ismail into the faculty of Universiti Malaya, Malaysia’s oldest and most prestigious university, where he first started out as a lecturer. Over the following decades, he was one of the men who built the foundations of Universiti Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC). At the time that he was promoted to the directorship of the Centre, the Director of UMMC also held the seat of the Dean of the Faculty of Medical Sciences at Universiti Malaya. ‘Three years ago the Board of Directors decided to split (the designations) so they had to appoint another person as the dean. Because I’ve been the Director before this and as the hospital became a bigger entity, they needed somebody with experience so the Vice-Chancellor at the time asked and I stayed on as the Director,’ said Dr Ikram.

But Dr Ikram did not embrace the medical profession by design. His heart lay with mathematics long before a career in medicine crossed his mind. ‘I’m very mathematically-oriented. Computer science has always been my childhood dream,’ Dr Ikram relished. An opportunity presented itself, but with an unlikely outcome. ‘I was given a scholarship by MARA to do my matriculation in Brisbane, Australia. When I was there, I did rather well in my senior exam, and my seniors told me that it’d be such a shame if I didn’t do medicine because of my good results. So I called my parents and they approved.’

That decision altered his life path forever. He completed a six-year programme in East Queensland, and during this time, medicine gradually grew to occupy a space in his heart. ‘The love of medicine begins because when you start seeing patients, you feel like you’re doing something. By the time I was in my fifth year, our final year, I realised that this is what I want to do because this is where I feel I can do most good to humanity – to help people who are suffering from illness,’ said Dr Ikram. ‘My aim in life has always been to help the sick. In my younger days as a doctor, and now as hospital administrator, I try to improve hospital conditions and environment so that our doctors can do a better job in healthcare.’

Ikram editI realised that this is what I want to do because this is where I feel I can do most good to humanity
– to help people who are suffering from illness…

As he worked his way into the medical profession, Dr Ikram had his fair share of distressing experiences. He described his first job as a medical officer at Hospital Kuala Lumpur (HKL), illustrating just one of the many the struggles he has faced. ‘I was posted to HKL and they put me in a third-class ward. At that time the third-class ward was really like a hospital in a third-world country; it was horrible and I had nightmares about that period. I spent about three months there and my consultant at that time felt that I probably learned enough medicine or suffered enough, so she took me in and asked me to look after the first-class ward patients and second-class,’ he related with a chuckle.

However, that wasn’t the end of it. Later during his training, he endured a medical officer’s nightmare. ‘I was sitting for my exam at night, but the night before I was asked to go on call and I had to work through the night and next day, and I had to go to my exam feeling very sleepy after being on call for 24 hours,’ he explained. However, being the doctor that he is, the lack of sleep and fatigue didn’t stop him from acing the examination.

Being the son of schoolteachers, the professional veteran in Universiti Malaya and UMMC reveals that, contrary to popular belief, teaching and practicing medicine do go hand-in-hand. ‘All doctors should teach,’ Dr Ikram asserted. ‘As a medical doctor, we’re also lecturers. A doctor is supposed to learn to do things and then once we learn how to do things, then we teach. So teaching is part and parcel of being a doctor.’

‘When you teach other people, you are actually strengthening your own knowledge, because to be able to teach you must know your subject very well. If you want to teach students, you just have to keep up with the latest in medicine. So if you teach, you actually become a better doctor,’ reasoned Dr Ikram. He added that research plays a similar role to teaching in improving medical skills. ‘When I was doing my PhD, it trained me to be an even better doctor because by doing research, you learn how to solve problems. You have a particular research problem, you learn the approach to use, scientific approach to solve a problem. You know the approach on how to solve that problem. So it is very useful for a doctor to be able to do research, even up to the PhD level.’

With a foreign education, it is puzzling why Dr Ikram chose to come back to Malaysia when there are greener pastures in fully-developed countries, such as Australia and the United Kingdom that he has been to. But he stands firm on this decision with several valid reasons. ‘I never looked to it. I rather like the environment here,’ he answered. ‘Here, we have everybody. All the specialists are here, so if you have any problems or need any advice, everybody’s here. And they’re the best in the country, so that’s why I like it here. I always tell people, if you go to see the doctor in a private hospital, you’re seeing our students. If you come here, you will see the mahaguru (great teacher). If you want the best, you come to UMMC,’ he said.

Recent international rankings of education institutions, however, have raised the ire of Malaysians who question the performance of Malaysian tertiary education providers. This provides fodder for the public perception that, perhaps, current Malaysian education standards are declining when compared to the previous generation. ‘In those days, everything is done by reputation. If they’re famous, people think that they’re good, but they may not. Maybe those lecturers that were considered to be good in the past – if they were to practice now – may not reach up to the standards that we expect them to do now. So it’s a perception. I don’t think that the standards are coming down, but of course we are always trying to improve,’ explained Dr Ikram.

There are even instances where Malaysian education standards actually exceed the quality of certain foreign education institutions around the world, which debunks another myth amongst common perceptions that foreign education makes a better-trained graduate. ‘It depends on where you come from,’ Dr Ikram reasoned, adding some countries, like UK and Australia, have reputable medical schools. ‘(If it’s from countries like) UK, Australia then you know that the schools are good. ‘But if you come from, say, some of these universities in Russia, Crimea, these are the ones where their students may not be as good as the local universities.’

UMMC puts its money where its mouth is in light of these international education rankings, for they are the testament to the quality of Universiti Malaya’s graduates. That standard continues to outstrip that of most other institutions in the country. ‘We are the top university and also the oldest. There are medical schools in UKM (National University of Malaysia) and USM (Science University of Malaysia), and these are also very good medical schools. But there are some of the newer ones, which are not as good,’ said Dr Ikram. ‘When it comes to choosing doctors I would prefer doctors who are graduating from this university.’

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