NUH team saves patients from superbug

SINGAPORE - Six years ago, one in 10 patients at National University Hospital (NUH) would pick up a common superbug, which could hamper their recovery and sometimes be fatal.  Now, that number is one in 40.

Thanks to the work by associate professors Dale Fisher and Raymond Lin, Ms Catherine Teo and Ms Lisa Ang, who were on Wednesday recognised with the National Clinical Excellence Team Award.

Seven other awards were given at Wednesday night's National Medical Excellence Award ceremony at the Goodwood Park Hotel, where public sector health-care professionals who made significant contributions to patient care, either through their work, research or as teachers, were recognised.

Each award, which was presented by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, came with a trophy, a citation and $10,000.

There was even a second-time winner. Emergency medicine specialist Shirley Ooi of the National University Health System won the Outstanding Clinician Educator award for, among other things, her Guide To The Essentials In Emergency Medicine which has sold more than 13,000 copies worldwide.

In 2011, she was part of the NUH team which was recognised for cutting the time it took to treat a patient with a heart attack.

Mr Gan also highlighted the continuing need for research, such as the work done by NUH associate professor Yeoh Khay Guan into the early detection of gastric cancer, which clinched him the Clinician Scientist Award.

The minister said such research can generate "medical breakthroughs for better health and economic outcomes".

The impact of the work done by the team fighting the superbug has already produced a measurable outcome - saving 20 lives a year that would otherwise have been lost not to the illness they went to hospital for, but an illness picked up there.

The methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) superbug often spreads through touch when doctors, nurses, visitors and patients do not wash their hands after coming into contact with an infected person. It can also spread through surfaces such as door handles or unclean beds.

In some carriers, the bug remains dormant. But other patients may suffer various symptoms, from a mild boil on the skin to severe blood poisoning, which can be fatal.

So the team, which started work in 2007, set about improving hand hygiene.

Through posters, comic strips and videos, it managed to change practices. Hand washing before and after treating patients became more stringent.

The hospital also started checking all new patients to find out if they carried MRSA. Those with the bug were put in the same ward. This allowed other wards to remain MRSA free.

Said Prof Fisher: "Swabbing patients, grouping those with positive swabs and stopping staff to ask them to wash their hands, all 'interfere' with our work but has brought about the change in our infection rates."

NUH's success has been published in medical journals and shared at both local and international conferences.

Said Mr Gan: "This team has successfully bridged the gap between knowledge and clinical practice to improve the outcomes, standards, safety and quality of patient care."

The best in health care

The National Medical Excellence Award recognises public sector doctors who have made significant contribution to patient care. Here are this year's winners:

National Outstanding Clinicians

Professor Fong Kok Yong (chairman of Singapore General Hospital medical board)

For helping Singapore develop treatment and care for people suffering from autoimmune diseases, including rheumatism. He played a pivotal role in advancing treatment and care.

Associate Professor Terrance Chua (deputy medical director of the National Heart Centre)

For his work in nuclear cardiology, a non-invasive way to detect heart disease. The heart centre does more than 9,000 such tests a year.

National Outstanding Clinician Scientist

Associate Professor Yeoh Khay Guan (National University Hospital)

For ground-breaking research in the early detection and genomic profiling of gastric cancer.

National Outstanding Clinician Mentor

Associate Professor Quah Thuan Chong (childhood cancer specialist at NUH)

For creating the "perfect learning environment" for his students. He teaches young doctors to apply scientific knowledge in understanding patients' problems. He was also a pioneer in bone marrow transplant here.

National Outstanding Clinician Educators

Dr Koo Wen Hsin (National Cancer Centre)

For his "best-attended and exceptionally highly-rated" lectures at the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School. He reminds doctors that they are not just treating an illness, but a fellow human being.

Associate Professor Shirley Ooi (National University Health System)

For advancing emergency medicine as a speciality and for her Guide To The Essentials In Emergency Medicine, which has sold more than 13,000 copies worldwide.

National Outstanding Clinical Quality Activist

Associate Professor Quek Swee Chye (NUH)

For championing quality improvement and patient safety. NUH was the first here to make public its clinical performance on the Internet.

National Clinical Excellence, Team

Associate Professor Dale Fisher, Associate Professor Raymond Lin, Ms Catherine Teo and Ms Lisa Ang (NUH)

For reducing the rate of superbug infections from one in 10 patients to one in 40.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.