Dean's Speech: The Dean's Letter 2023

02 December 2023

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Moving with the Times

I start with good news. Over the past few months, the Faculty has had some very encouraging feedback about the quality of our teaching and research. In September, the Medical Council of Hong Kong (MCHK) conducted its regular review of the MBBS programme and gave glowing initial feedback about our facilities and our students. Although the full report is not yet available, the signs are that the MCHK believes we are progressing in all the right directions in training the healthcare professionals of tomorrow. With that, I wish to thank all members who were involved in the exercise and helped to showcase our strengths.

The details will follow, but let me highlight two things that this feedback reveals. First, we do not cease to stay abreast of new developments and find opportunities to lead the way, most recently with Generative AI (GenAI). I will give a more detailed account on this below. Second, our achievements are made possible because of the hard work and commitment of our staff and students. As a Faculty, we cultivate this commitment by putting people first – whether they are new or existing staff, new or existing students or, like yourselves after today, alumni of HKUMed. We look after all of our relationships and all of our people, and I hope our new graduates will view today not as an end, but as the beginning of the next stage of your journey with the Faculty.

Having said that, there are a number of opportunities and challenges ahead of us. Our success will depend as much on how we tackle them as what we do. We have therefore adopted a bottom-up approach that involves input from both students and staff – from our people at all levels – on everything from figuring out the best way to incorporate new technologies into the classroom, to identifying new collaboration points among disciplines. This input is helping my team and I to develop forward-looking strategies and deepen our networks across Hong Kong, the region and the world – including with our alumni – so that we can strengthen the impact of our work.

Enriching Experience

A prime area where we are going above and beyond is in education. As you will all have experienced, an education at HKUMed is not only about building skills and knowledge. We aim to provide enrichment opportunities to all students so they can gain deeper insights about themselves, their chosen professions and society in general. This will make them better professionals and better people.

We first embedded enrichment experiences in the MBBS curriculum – effectively carving out time for students to explore other disciplines, spend time in other parts of the world, develop their research skills and/or serve the community – and this has proven to be very successful. Over the past couple of years, several students who pursued an MRes in their Enrichment Year had their research published. This year, we added a Distinguished MedScholar track, which admitted 60 outstanding students who will receive intensive research training in their Enrichment Year, with a view towards PhD studies after they complete their MBBS.

At the same time, enrichment experiences are being rolled out across almost all our other programmes. Nursing has a Life Enrichment Learning Programme that offers opportunities for exchanges to top universities overseas, as well as service activities, research attachments and more. Similarly, Pharmacy's Enrichment modules give students opportunities for overseas exchanges, while its experiential education programme takes students into a wide variety of settings, from clinics to hospitals to industry. Biomedical Sciences took students on an educational trip to Singapore early this year and has launched a new entrepreneurship capstone course that provides hands-on experience in the world of startups. Students from the Global Health Development programme spend six months being mentored by leading organisations, such as UN agencies, in places such as Jakarta in Indonesia, Phnom Penh in Cambodia and Sao Tome in Africa. To name a small selection of the opportunities offered to our students.

The interesting thing is this: enrichment is not a one-way provision. The Faculty recognises that our students can also enrich us and our curriculum, especially in this age of rapid technological change. We therefore have taken steps to establish our students as partners as we move down new, untrodden paths.

Students as Partners

Over the past four years, medical students have been encouraged to become involved in teaching and curriculum development through our Students in Medical Education initiative – SIME, for short – which also recognises that teaching is an important part of the professional life of healthcare workers. This is closely intertwined with technological development because novel technologies are new to teachers and students alike, and we must learn from each other how to tap the potential as well as address issues such as authenticity, privacy and data security. To advance both goals and extend them to students in all programmes, we recently appointed Dr Gary Lau Kui-kai as the Director of Education Technology (EdTech) and SIME.

To get an idea of what student involvement can mean, let me give you some examples from our experiences with medical students. Under the SIME programme, they have partnered with educators to co-design over 20 teaching and learning innovations, such as interactive e-learning sets, interactive diagrams and gamified learning. They have also been involved as near-peer tutors in problem-based learning sessions and online sessions for pre-clinical students – the tutors are senior students and their participation not only helps their junior counterparts, it helps the tutors to consolidate their knowledge. This year we will introduce near-peer tutors for clinical students. There is certainly room for such initiatives in our other programmes in future.

Some of these examples involve new technologies. Many of our students have been playing with and using technological devices from infancy and they are well-positioned to give rich and useful feedback on what is and is not useful to learning. SIME can help us, as a Faculty, move with the times and with our students.

Adopting AI and Other Technologies

We adopt new technologies to enhance our work, not simply because they are there, and we have a strong track record of succeeding in this goal. The MCHK accreditation team gave us early positive feedback on our adoption of cutting-edge technologies, such as the virtual patient simulator and VR in Nursing, the Techmezz and the Anatomage. Digital assessments and telehealth have been integrated into our teaching. And, in the past few months, a lot of effort has been focused on GenAI, which offers a good example of how HKUMed and the University as a whole are responding to technological change.

The University has issued a policy and guidelines to all Faculties and developed training materials for both teachers and students. Here at HKUMed, we adapted the policy to provide more elaborate guidance to students to ensure their use of GenAI still aligns with the registration standards for professional licensing bodies. Teachers have also been given guidelines on things like adapting unsupervised assessments with alternative tasks to demonstrate that the work is the student's, such as asking them to submit hand-written care plans and make short video demonstrations.

Moreover, with a generous HK$30 million donation from Mr Li Ka-shing, which the Faculty has matched, we will be expanding our digital teaching and learning capacity through hardware, software and human capital. Our focus will be on GenAI, big data and informatics, and we will be providing grants and scholarships to students with academic excellence in AI technologies. I would like to point out here that the first year of our revived BSc (Bioinformatics) has attracted high-quality students. We have already identified some ways in which AI can offer unique input into learning, such as analysing team interpersonal communication skills and teaching students how to train data to help interpret x-ray results.

Mix and Match

Our strategy for teaching and learning – involving students in curriculum development and the adoption of transformative technologies – finds an echo in our research strategy, too. We are rewarding young talent through the HKU Research Fellowship Scheme for Clinical Academics, which has been enhanced to be more inclusive and allow for overseas research training. We are also making concerted efforts to break down barriers, especially between disciplines, and encouraging a bottom-up approach.

In the spring, we piloted a series of mini retreats for Chairs and Directors of Departments and Schools to help cultivate more synergies for research collaborations between clinicians and scientists. Following from that, the School of Clinical Medicine launched its research mixers, which are open to staff across HKUMed. The mixers have a format: brief talks are given around a chosen theme, followed by informal discussions over lunch. The first mixer, held in June, was on that topic we are all talking about – AI and Big Data in Medicine – and the second was on cancer and personalised medicine. These gatherings encourage our scholars to share their ideas about complex issues and, we hope, consider how they can join together to answer them.

Already, the mixers have made progress through the establishment of the Research Data Collaboration Task Force. This will guide the formation of a framework and ultimately a facility for big data collaboration that all researchers in the Faculty will be able to share, access and utilise. I have also used the Dean's Fund to establish the HKUMed Collaboration Booster Fund to support a team science approach towards high-impact, innovative projects that have high translation potential.

The emphasis on collaboration also finds tangible form in our ongoing efforts to develop biomedical engineering. We have received HK$28 million from the University Grants Committee to upgrade the Pauline Chan Building with dedicated facilities for biomedical engineering, such as a digital health lab, 3D printing lab and medical robotics lab. The work will be completed in the next academic year. We will also be working with the Faculties of Engineering and Dentistry to co-host the Biomedical International Symposium next June.

Another promising development is the planned Greater Bay Area International Clinical Trial Institute, announced in the Policy Address of Hong Kong's Chief Executive in October. HKUMed has cross-disciplinary expertise in clinical trials and associated networks in the GBA and Hong Kong, and we are most keen to contribute to this initiative.

Global Networks

Collaboration is not only encouraged within the University. Our scholars work closely with their counterparts around the world. These global networks are critical for advancing research to benefit patients, as our work during the COVID-19 pandemic showed. Our success there recently brought us a major reward in the form of a large donation to strengthen preparation for the next pandemic.

Last month, we signed an MoU with The Hong Kong Jockey Club that provides us with a special donation to establish The Hong Kong Jockey Club Global Health Institute that headquarters at HKUMed. We will be collaborating with the University of Cambridge and the International Vaccine Institute to centralise and co-ordinate pandemic preparedness at the academic and industrial levels; to translate research into practical preventative interventions such as vaccines; and to advance the equitable access and affordability of these interventions and technologies.

At the same time, Professor Yuen Kwok-Yung has teamed up with Professor David Ho of Columbia University, who has worked with HKUMed for many years, to create a global Pandemic Research Alliance. They are building on the legacy of Hong Kong and HKU in dealing with pandemics and infectious diseases over more than a century and they have brought in partners including the University of Melbourne, Duke-Singapore National University, Tsinghua University and Guangzhou National Laboratory.

These initiatives come alongside our ongoing collaborations. In just the past three months, we held a symposium with the Francis Crick Institute on infection, immunity, stem cell, cancer research and emerging biomedical technologies, and a joint symposium with the University of Cambridge on the future of medical sciences that also celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Department of Medicine. The Master of Trinity College at Cambridge, Professor Dame Sally Davies, spoke in October at the Inaugural Gabriel Leung Lecture. And the School of Chinese Medicine marked its 25th anniversary with the 12th Pong Ding Yuen International Symposium on Chinese Medicine, which looked at the globalisation of Chinese medicine and integrative medicine and attracted participants from the region, Europe, North America and Australia.

Patient Benefits

Our efforts to continuously improve our teaching and research, and widen our networks of collaboration, all have one goal in mind, which is to benefit patients. We want to ensure that our curricula and research ultimately translate into better patient outcomes. Here, too, we need to move with the times. In a sense, there is also a bottom-up focus developing in patient care.

Primary healthcare, which starts well before patients should ever need hospital care, has at long last been given a boost by the government. The Primary Healthcare Blueprint was released a year ago – Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee in the School of Nursing, who was formerly Hong Kong's Secretary for Food and Health, played a major role in its development – and it outlines the establishment of 18 district health centres across Hong Kong. Their purpose is to be a first point of contact for patient care, chronic disease management, health promotion and the like. From October this year, HKUMed assumed the role of Medical Consultant in three of these centres. This will have multiple benefits for patients and for us, enhancing professional training for our students and research into primary care.

Over the past year, we have also introduced a multi-source feedback system for clinical services. This recognises that patient care is not simply about disease outcomes, but involves broader aspects of competence, such as interpersonal skills, compassion, professionalism and trust. Health systems around the world are increasingly assessing such competencies and it dovetails very well with our efforts to promote a People First culture in HKUMed.

Our staff have also been very good at identifying ways to engage with the community to promote health and provide people with sound, reliable information. Just to cite a few recent examples, Dr Wendy Chan Wing-lok and her team have launched 'Support+' to raise awareness of palliative care and help cancer patients and their families. The HKU Stroke team has collaborated with community partners to help stroke patients and their caregivers. And our many HKUMed scholars, especially those from the School of Nursing and the School of Public Health, have been at the forefront of the campaign for tobacco control to protect our city from the irreversible harms of tobacco consumption.

Always, People First

People First is not only related to our clinical work. It is also about our staff and students. As a Faculty, we aim to nourish our people by listening to them – through townhalls, retreats and the like – involving them in HKUMed's development, and providing opportunities for self-care. Yoga sessions and city farming have recently been initiated on campus to provide short, therapeutic breaks from the bench, the bedside and the computer. We have a Student Wellness Team that provides a range of counselling and psychotherapy services and organises wellness-related events.

In all of our endeavours, we aim to enhance connectivity among people at all levels andrespond to them. I cannot emphasise enough how important this is to me. At a seminar in July, a student asked me how I would define success for HKUMed – how I would tell that I am doing a good job. I feel this is not measured simply by our ranking in the world or how good we are perceived to be in Hong Kong. It is not measured only by how many research papers we publish or how many grants we receive. It is also reflected in how the best students and staff want to be part of the HKUMed family, and how they enjoy themselves while they are here. And how alumni, donors and other valued partners want to contribute to our growth.

As graduating students, you will always remain part of the HKUMed family. As I said at the outset, this is the first part of your journey with us. I hope you have gained not only skills and knowledge but also valuable insights and friendships. We will always welcome you back with open arms. I hope, in turn, that you will be proactive in passing the benefits on to the next generation of students and join us by contributing to the future work and success of HKUMed. For now, take the greatest pleasure in celebrating your achievements and moving forward to the next stage of your professional development. My warmest congratulations to each of you.