Prof KL Goh : Making research his life’s work

22 NOVEMBER 2011, BY Merdeka Award
At 55 and after about 30 years in service as both Professor at the University of Malaya and Senior Consultant at the University of Malaya Medical Centre, Professor Dato’ Dr Goh Khean Lee, or Prof KL Goh as he is widely-known, cannot be faulted if he chose to retire, relax and enjoy a spot of golf, gardening or travelling.
However, this self-professed workaholic is far from doing that, and even now finds it difficult to take the occasional day off.
His role as head of the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, and Chief of the Gastrointestinal Endoscopy Unit at University of Malaya Medical Center (UMMC) – a role he has held since 1996 – leaves him little time for any such hobbies, except for his family, wife, Su Lin, consultant ophthalmologist in private practice and daughters Li Yen, Li Syuen and son Li Han, who are the bedrock of his life.
The UMMC’s Gastrointestinal Endoscopy Unit does a whole range of therapeutic procedures and over 10,000 procedures a year.. Unlike most other medical imaging devices, the endoscope is inserted directly into the organ and is often used to confirm a diagnosis when other devices, such as an MRI, X-ray, or CT scan are not able to. Indeed, trends in the medical field also seem to be pointing to the less invasive endoscopy surgeries as recovery time is much faster compared to other surgical procedures.
On 12 June 2008, as a recognition of the high standards and commitment to patient care and teaching, OMED (Organization Mondiale d'Endoscopie Digestive) or World Organization of Digestive Endoscopy awarded the OMED Center of Excellence to UMMC’s Gastrointestinal Endoscopy Unit. It is the highest honour an endoscopy unit can receive and this unit is one of only seventeen (17) in the world.
The UMMC Endoscopy unit is the only unit in Malaysia and one of only 4 centers in Asia accorded this high honour; the others being The Prince of Wales Hospital, Chinese University, Hong Kong, China; the Asian Institute of Gastroenterology, Hyderabad, India and the Soon Chun Yang University Hospital, Seoul, South Korea.  The GI Endoscopy unit at the UMMC is also a highly sought-after training centre both locally and internationally.
Prof Goh has also supervised and examined several doctoral theses (MD and PhD) both within and outside the University of Malaya, and is widely considered as a mentor to many gastroenterologists in this country and in the region academically and professionally.
Yet, even with so many demands on his time, Prof Goh has dedicated his precious time and resources to exhaustive research on a host of gastroenterology and hepatology issues.  For the non-medically-inclined amongst us, gastroenterology is the study of the digestive system and its disorders, whilst hepatology is the branch of medicine that incorporates the study of liver, gallbladder, biliary tree, and pancreas as well as management of their disorders.  Together, these disorders affect millions around the world annually, with some disorders coming only second to cancer in terms of mortality.
As he tells us, when he graduated in 1980, he only wanted to become a good doctor. After obtaining his specialist professional degree (MRCP (UK) in 1984, his interest in academic medicine started. He felt that “good clinical research was part and parcel of good clinical practice”. His main focus at that time was on the observations of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori in the stomachs of patients coming for “gastric complaints” on which he carried out many clinical studies. (Helicobacter pylori was identified as a causal agent for gastritis and gastric ulcers by Barry Marshall and Robin Warren in 1983).
His observation of the differences in racial prevalence of this bacterium is seminal and he proposed the “Racial cohort” theory and coined the term “Indian enigma” to explain his findings. His work culminated in his writing of his doctoral thesis.
One of the few academicians in the medical field who has obtained a doctoral degree, his thesis on “Helicobacter pylori in Malaysia” is considered outstanding work and has been widely cited throughout the world. He has the highest number of publications and citations in the biomedical field in Malaysia with papers in high impact journals such as the American Journal of Gastroenterology, Gastrointestinal Endoscopy and Gut.
A testimony to his work is the large number of his “students” who are now highly successful gastroenterologists in their own right, both locally and abroad and who all have fond memories of having trained at the UMMC.
His work credo has always been “humility, honesty and hard work”.  To him, “working smart” is seriously not a good idea. He believes that in the field of clinical medicine there is no alternative to working hard.
A personable and humble person, he is well-liked and highly regarded by his patients and his peers.  From September 2004 until October 2008, Professor Goh held the key position of Secretary-General of the Asian-Pacific Association of Gastroenterology (APAGE), and is currently its President.
In addition, in May 2011, he was voted in as Vice-President of the World Gastroenterology Organization, a highly prestigious position and will be eligible to stand for President of the world body in 2013. He is the first Malaysian to be given the honour.
He currently sits in the important “Guidelines” and “Publication” subcommittees of the World Gastroenterology Organization and is a member of the review committee and co-author of the world practice guidelines on colorectal cancer screening (2006) and Helicobacter pylori (2006 and 2009).
And in August 2011, he was named Joint Recipient for 2011 Merdeka Award in the category of Outstanding Scholastic Achievement for Outstanding Contribution in Elevating the Study and Practice of Gastroenterology and Hepatology in Malaysia to Global Standards.  His dedication and passion have indeed elevated the practice of gastroentology and hepatology in Malaysia to world standards and reflects the Merdeka Award’s ideals of fostering a culture of excellence. 
Note :  Professor Dato’ Dr Goh Khean Lee is a Joint Recipient for 2011 Merdeka Award in the category of Outstanding Scholastic Achievement for Outstanding Contribution in Elevating the Study and Practice of Gastroenterology and Hepatology in Malaysia to Global Standards.  The awards were presented by Prime Minister and Patron of the Merdeka Award Dato’ Sri Mohd Najib Tun Abdul Razak at the Merdeka Award Presentation ceremony on October 10, 2011 at the Dewan Filkarmonik PETRONAS.


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