Serena Wee, CEO of Icon Cancer Centre (Asean and Hong Kong), has been in the healthcare industry her whole life. Her parents both worked in hospitals and were among the pioneers at one of Singapore’s premier hospitals. Growing up watching her parents provide care and service has spurred her to do the same. Now she plans to take it to the next level. She speaks to Options about how she’s changing cancer care, especially for young women.
SINGAPORE (March 13): Some of Serena Wee’s earliest childhood memories were always in the hospital, but not in the way you might think. Growing up, she would ‘hang around’ the Mount Elizabeth Hospital, because her mom used to work there (the latter was among the pioneer nurses who started the hospital back in the mid-to-late 1970s). Her mother eventually retired as the chief operating officer of Mount Alvernia Hospital. “I used to hang around after school to meet her, and then we’ll head home together,” she tells Options in a recent interview. “I was always in that environment. My dad was in medical technology — so one can say I’m a healthcare ‘lifer’,” she adds.
Petite, with a smile that lights up her eyes, Wee has over 25 years’ experience in healthcare management and was previously leading regional operations for Icon SOC (Singapore Oncology Consultants) as chief operating officer. That company — pioneers in medical oncology here — was acquired by Icon Group, Australia’s largest cancer care provider in 2016. Like her mother, she began at Mount Elizabeth Hospital as a management engineer before working for other healthcare providers like Parkway Group Healthcare. She also moved on to senior roles in healthcare investment, consultancy and development. For example, Wee is also the co-founder of Can-Care Holdings, a provider of comprehensive and personalised post-cancer care products and services targeted to meet the physical, social and psychological needs of people with cancer, cancer survivors and their families — paying special focus to women with cancer.
But it is in her role as the CEO of Icon in Asean and Hong Kong that she is most invested in. Here, she is focused on bringing the best of cancer care to the patient and their families, as close to their homes as possible. Icon is a Brisbane-based company which has done well in its native Australia as that country’s largest dedicated cancer care provider.
Now, Wee’s goal is to bring that same level of care to Icon’s other markets across the globe. But this line of work is more than just a job. As she puts it, this is a vocation. “It’s about knowing the impact on the patient’s lives and being a part of the continuum of care, of being a part of the healing process of a patient,” Wee says. “When I travel, I sometimes visit hospitals and my friends ask me, “are you kidding?” but [I visit] because it is an exciting learning opportunity for me, to see how the hospital operates [and learn from it].” In fact, she is now about to embark on a project which she hopes will transform the face of cancer care, and especially for young women.
While treatment of cancer is a big focus for Icon, cancer care is more than that, says Wee. It goes far beyond treating or eliminating the cancer to encompass a holistic view of the impact the disease has on the patient and his or her family. “At Icon, cancer is all we do — so we go deep and our business encompass all aspects of cancer care including treatment, pharmacy, compounding & clinical research, and now we are providing screening, and supportive care,” she says. “Healthcare has come a long way in Singapore, and it’s an evolution. In the past, it was very focused on treatment, but it’s now focusing on awareness, via screening and prevention & on supportive care.”
“We take a holistic view of the person, rather than the patient,” she adds. “Definitely, treatment is a big focus for us, but as we speak, we’re developing the supportive care aspect of cancer care. It is about being a part of the patient’s journey, and the continuum of care.” Their focus is not just the physical aspect, such as rehab or therapy, but also the psycho-social aspects of cancer. “Hence, we are looking at support groups that encourage active participation, and support in ways many people don’t talk about.”
One of Wee’s most exciting endeavours now is a support programme for women with cancer, with a focus on onco-fertility. “It’s a programme we’re very passionate about. See, when a young woman gets cancer, her psycho-social needs are different. Very often, we focus on the treatment. But the first thought of any young woman with cancer is, “Do I need surgery? Chemotherapy? Radiation? And if I do, what are my chances of having a child in the future, what will it do to my fertility?”.
While breast cancer incidences peak among women aged 55 and above in Singapore, about 10% to 13% of breast cancer patients are under 40 years old. However, according to experts, younger women have a poorer chance of survival compared to older women. This is because all too often, younger women tend to dismiss warning signs and do not conduct self-examination as regularly as they should. For example, symptoms such as breast lumps or unusual nipple discharge is typically the key to early diagnosis but because age is still the highest risk factor for cancer, they tend to ignore it.
Regardless of age, the impact of cancer is devastating, but for a young woman, her entire future, not just her life, is at stake should she beat the disease. Indeed, for a young woman, the questions are numerous: What will the treatment mean for her relationship and the possibility of a family? Or perhaps, how will treatment impact her sexually and physically? What would going back to work be like, how will it affect her career after a prolonged medical absence? These are the areas which Wee — who has formed a group of five female doctors within Icon specifically to support this initiative — intends to tackle.
Currently, the programme is being created — with feedback from doctors, fertility experts and patients — and it is slated to launch this month, says Wee. “We’ve talked to fertility experts, oncology experts, and we’ve been told that we are among the few who are focusing so much on onco-fertility. While our programme is still at a fairly early stage, we’ve already got the team, the structure, and established collaborative efforts with fertility companies. It’s not a singular thing, it’s really about working closely with experts in the respective fields. This collaborative, multidisciplinary care is what we believe in, [cancer care] is multi-pronged.”
Wee really wants this programme to be established here. But more than that, it’s about giving back. “We at Icon truly believe in giving back to the communities we operate in,” she explains. “Oneof the few things as a cancer care company that we could do, wherever we are in the world, if we structure this programme really well, we can take this to the rest of the markets.” Her immediate next step is to do the best in bringing this programme to fore. “I am in no rush to say, we have to launch it by this time. We’re ensuring everything is done well, according to process, we want it to be done professionally and not trial and error,” she says. “We’re conducting focus groups to understand the women themselves, to find out what they truly need. We are also focusing on the sustainability of this programme, so it’s not a flash-in-the-pan, so that it will eventually take a life of its own no matter where we launch it.”
Despite being in an industry that is as serious as healthcare and cancer, in person Wee is warm and her passions clearly shines through. “The thing that really drives me is the idea of being innovative. Even in a profession as old as medical care, we can learn so much,” she concludes. “I tend to always look at things outside the box — it’s cliched but let’s try to innovate what we do every day for the patients, to put ourselves in our patients’ shoes and be empathetic and understanding to help them and support them. Whatever we do, if we put our patient at the heart of it, we’ll never go wrong."