Tan Liren
Tan Liren graduated in 2010 and is a Senior Industrial Designer at Alexandra Health System





You lead the innovation and research team here in Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH), is that your main role?
Yes, KTPH is part of the Alexandra Health System. Within Alexandra Health System I lead the innovation team and we are headed by our Chief Transformation Officer, Dr. Wong Sweet Fun. There are three areas of work we do. One is in-house patient experience-related projects where we design new programmes for patients and look into developing new care models, products, and creating new experiences for them. The second includes promoting an innovation culture within the hospital. So that’s where we design the curriculum and conduct courses, etc. to raise awareness about design. The last is where we work with companies in related industries on co-innovation projects.
In which of these are you most actively involved, or which is the one you like to do the most?
Definitely the part where we get to design new programmes, new care models, new patient experiences; it is very exciting. After I joined KTPH, we started to take on more design research projects, partly because my experience was in that area. We started working on designing experiences for the patients, and over time we started getting involved in designing new programmes. I think the area of focus for our cluster now is that healthcare is moving beyond the walls of the hospital and directly into the community.
Can you give me an example?
One of the very successful programmes that the hospital rolled out back in 2012 is called Ageing-In-Place (AIP), which won the 2014 United Nations Public Service Award. Basically, elderly patients who have had three or more admissions at our accident & emergency (A&E) department within a six-month period get enrolled into the AIP programme. The AIP team sends a group of community nurses to these patients’ homes to assess their needs and link them up with partners and services from the community such as elderly befriender services.
So that was initiated through this team?
The AIP programme was initiated by our Chief Transformation Officer. That was quite a successful model, as the AIP team took on the hospital bed crunch issue with a user-centred approach. Through home visits, the AIP team learnt that apart from medical needs, these elderly patients faced challenges when they were back home, that led to repeated visits to the hospital. Because of this initiative, our community arm is now evolving very quickly. With the opening of our community hospital, the kind of projects that we’re now receiving are also a lot broader. For example, we now have to look into how we can integrate a patient from acute care into the community hospital setting and then back into their homes. So it’s quite exciting.
How was the shift from your previous company, ASUS, to KTPH?
Well, I think all along I knew that I wanted to be in healthcare, so even when I chose ASUS back then, it really was more of a deliberate choice as new hires in healthcare at that time needed to have some experience in a medical or technology company. I chose ASUS after I graduated because I liked their mission statement, which is to start with people.
When did you start getting interested in healthcare?
In my second year in DID, I almost quit. I didn’t know where design was going to take me, and personally it was also quite a drastic shift, going from a science background to doing design. I never thought I would do design, but I chose it because there were no exams, haha. When I entered DID, it was completely different from what I imagined it to be. In the beginning I didn’t really understand what design was, and what it could be, so I thought that maybe design was more for the artsy people. I actually signed up for nursing, and got accepted into nursing during my second year in DID.
Why nursing?
I just thought I should do something more meaningful. I wanted to be a doctor, but my parents didn’t want me to go overseas to study medicine. I considered doing nursing and then somehow I thought maybe in design I could do the same thing, so I stayed on.
And in your final year thesis project you dealt with children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
I started to discover that design could do so much more. Being able to design is a very useful skill, and I’m glad I developed it. So that was a very enjoyable project for me. And I was also very lucky because I had the privilege to have endless observations at Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS). Before I studied at NUS, I was actually volunteering with MINDS for about seven years. I volunteered all the way until I was in my fourth year in university.
So you started way before.
I did it in my junior college years for my Community Involvement Programme (CIP) project. I had a group of friends who said, “Let’s not do the conventional CIP projects and try to find something on our own.” We found this school, and we started off laminating cards, like flash cards for the kids, and doing library materials for them. But over time, I think as they trusted us a bit more, we got to interact with the kids, and then during my free time I would just work there as a relief teacher.
So your thesis was inspired by your time in MINDS?
Yes, when I was a relief teacher I was always going home very tired, and I realised it was because I had to keep chasing after the kids when they dashed out of the classrooms, and the quick fix then was to just lock the classroom door for their safety, which I felt was not the best solution of course. So I thought of doing something about that.
I really liked that project. What was the best or most fulfilling part about working on that project?
I remember when I was trying to do a proof of concept, I brought different rocking chairs down to try out. The kids hovered around the rocking chair and they all wanted to use it. After using the chair, they’d come back to the lesson a lot calmer, and they could absorb what was being taught to them better. I guess the most fulfilling part was to see the kids actually validating the concept.
From the workshops that you’ve done, what were the most rewarding moments?
I guess it’s not exactly rewarding, but it is part of making design recognised, because I think people need to start seeing the value of design. The healthcare industry is a very traditional industry. It has always been very focused on using hard science, data, evidence, and to be honest when you do design research, there’s very little of that. It’s a very soft science approach to listen, to uncover some of the latent needs of people you observe or speak to. Workshops are just a tool for us to help people in this industry think of new ways to look at solutions and to allow us to have a common language to communicate with them.
You said DID to you was like an incubator, why?
It’s like the start of something I guess, it’s a time where you get to explore what you might be interested in, in a very protected environment, but at the same time it doesn’t limit your creativity or your boundaries. And I always believe design in DID taught me that there should be no limits to what you can achieve. So if you don’t know anything, just say you don’t know, then go and suss it out yourself.
What is the most useful thing you’ve heard from a tutor?
I actually say this in all the presentations I give to people nowadays. Back then I remember in my second or first year of studies, we were asked to design a fruit juicer. It was an exercise by Dr. Christian. My teammate and I started to design this juicer that I thought was really good, and then when we did a presentation on it, Dr. Christian asked, “Have you ever tried to use the juicer yourself?” And I said no, because I had thought it would function like any other juicer, and I didn’t think it was necessary. I assumed that design was just about aesthetics. He scolded me, saying, “How can you design something that you’ve never used before?” You don’t even know what you don’t know. It still strikes a chord with me because then I realised that it’s really important to know what people are going through before you actually design for them.
So in all your workshops you ask your attendees to go and test things out?
Yeah, in all of our projects we do try to bring that across and communicate that it’s always important to start by looking at your user. Be it a patient or doctor, it’s important to go through what they go through, even if it means going to the A&E at 11pm just to see the difference in workflow.
What’s one value you inculcate in your team?
I think it’s important to have a growth mindset, where you never just say that you don’t know something; just go and try. I think it’ll get you far in life.