Research Personality: Dr. Ong Tiong Kiam

Dr. Ong Tiong Kiam is currently a Senior Consultant Cardiologist and Head of Department of Cardiology at the Sarawak General Hospital Heart Centre, Malaysia. He earned his medical degree from the University of New South Wales, Australia and went on further to obtain several other professional qualifications. Besides his current responsibility as a Course Director for Siemens Clinical Training Workshop on Cardiac CT, he is Adjunct Lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences, UNIMAS, Visiting Consultant Cardiologist at Kuching Specialist Hospital and a Member of the Credentialing Committee for the National Specialist Register Subcommittee for Cardiology.

Dr. Ong is an active member of various professional bodies such as the National Heart Association of Malaysia, Society of Pacing and Cardiac Electrophysiology of Malaysia, Society of Cardiovascular Computed Tomography and the Asia Pacific Society of Interventional Cardiology.

Dr. Ong has an impressive track record in conducting investigator initiated and industry-sponsored research (ISR). Since 2002, he was Principal Investigator and Co-Investigator for almost 90 trials. He has also authored numerous papers reporting clinical findings in international peer-reviewed journals. His latest publication was accepted and published in the International Journal of Cardiology and BMJ Open. Despite his busy schedule, Dr. Ong has presented at various international meetings.


Can you tell us how did you first got involved in research and where does this interest stem from?

My research career started in 2002 when I joined the Department of Cardiology. It was my former boss, Dr. Sim Kui Hian, who introduced research to me. He was instrumental in bringing many industry sponsored research to our department. I think for an institution to become a great research centre, it needs a champion. Someone who is passionate about research and can disseminate that enthusiasm to the rest of the team.


You have authored many clinical research papers and have successfully published them in internationally renowned medical journals like the New England Journal of Medicine. How do you find time writing research papers despite your busy schedules in clinical work and conducting research?

Doing research and writing papers for publication are not easy, especially when one works in a public institution where the demands of the service can be quite exhausting. It requires a lot of discipline and sacrifice because most of the work is done outside office hours. Collaboration with other investigators and co-authors is important. Writing a paper becomes a lot easier when different people are allocated separate roles, e.g., one person responsible for coming up with the draft and another person or persons helping with the corrections and revisions. In other words, team work is crucial.


The Sarawak General Hospital Heart Centre has recently been conferred the ISR Award for the Highest Number of Cardiology Clinical Trials for 2016. How do you motivate your study team to achieve and be where they are today?

To ensure that everyone doing research remains motivated and enthusiastic, it is important to share not just the work load but also the reward. A research project should not be allocated to only a few individuals. Everyone should get involved. For instance, all our cardiologists are sub-investigators for every trial conducted at our centre. Appreciation is shown to those directly or indirectly involved in various forms, such as financial support to attend conferences or provision of facilities such as internet access, computers and photocopiers. The opportunity to have one’s name listed in a journal publication is also a strong motivating factor.


What do you think are the barriers that prevents most doctors from participating in clinical research?

Most doctors have difficulty finding time to do research. The demands of the service can be quite overwhelming. In MOH institutions, unlike universities, doctors are usually not given protected time off to do research.


Why do you think it is important for doctors to take part in clinical research?

Doctors who do not take part in research will be blindly treating patients based on the recommendations of other doctors or pharmaceutical companies. Participating in research, however, will introduce them to the pitfalls of research such as a bad study design or wrong statistical analysis that could lead to a false conclusion. It allows them to be pioneers in the usage of new compounds or devices, even before these products become commercially available. Certain types of research also give their patients access to expensive treatment that would have been unaffordable or inaccessible to them.


What one word best describes your career as a clinical researcher/investigator? Why?

Rewarding. Doing research deepens my understanding of the disease for which the treatment is being tested. It can also be very gratifying when the study result eventually turns out to be positive and a new or more effective treatment becomes available to my patients. Knowing that I had contributed to the development of this new treatment is very satisfying.


In your years of experience as an investigator, is there any particular clinical trial which have left a mark in your career? Why?

I don’t think there’s any trial that stands up above all the rest. All clinical trials, big or small, positive or negative, are important and will contribute to scientific knowledge that can be used to improve patient care.


With the current services provided by CRM, how else do you think CRM can support investigators?

The biggest challenge faced by doctors is finding time to do research. Clearly, having a good research assistant or coordinator is a great bonus. If CRM can provide this service on a regular basis, more investigators might have less hesitation to take up clinical trials.


Do you think that Malaysia has what it takes to be on par with the rest of Asia when it comes to conducting high quality clinical trials? If no, what are we still lacking and what can we leverage on? If yes, what can we do more?

I have attended many investigators meetings, and sit on the global expert panels of several international trials. I would say that the quality of ISR in Malaysia in on par with the rest of Asia. In fact, we are probably better than many other countries in Asia.


In the field of clinical research, where do you wish to see Malaysia in the next 10 years?

Malaysia has enormous potential in clinical research. More and more doctors are realizing the importance and value of doing research in addition to routine clinical service. We have a diverse population with a wide range of diseases who are often quite willing to participate in clinical trials. I think in 10 years’ time, the number of clinical investigators in Malaysia will have increased tremendously. The only concern is that as our patient population become more educated or informed, there might be increased reluctance to volunteer to participate in clinical trials, similar to the current situation in Singapore.