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‘Aralin Natin Para Magawa Natin’ | Inside the Cauldron with Dr. Iris Thiele Isip-Tan (Part 2)

By Frances Ho (UPCM 2024)

This is Part 2 of our interview series with Dr. Iris Thiele Isip-Tan, where she shares the story of her origins and journey as an academician-researcher. She discusses her views on medical education in Part 1.

Your work is on health informatics, particularly on how mobile technology and social media can improve healthcare. This is a very new field – how did you come to be interested in it?

            As a medical resident in 1997, I already had a personal digital assistant (PDA). Wala pa kasing smart phones noon eh. Personal digital assistant pa yung tawag. So, I was one of the very few people who got that. Pagka kasi convention ng PCP, mayroon yung mga tech geeks – mayroon silang session, and they would often talk about personal digital assistants. That’s where I met Dr. [Alvin] Marcelo, and he invited me to give a talk on how [a resident uses] this personal digital assistant.

[The PDA] ran on batteries, can you imagine – triple A batteries tapos monochrome pa yung display. Pero, I had in there my e-brain, my peripheral brain. Wala pa kasing Platinum, wala pang mga ganoon. I got interested, and so, Dr. Marcelo said to me, “There’s going to be an MS in Health Informatics, baka you want to enroll.” At the same time, I got accepted as faculty, and if you’re accepted as faculty, they tell you that you need advanced studies; you have to take a master’s degree in something. So sabi ko, “Sige, try ko nga ‘tong informatics.” It took me a long time to finish kasi 2005 ako nag-start pero nag-graduate ako 2011 na. I finished the courses within the prescribed time, which is 1.5 years, but I didn’t do my thesis kasi I was still trying to set up my clinical practice.

I’ve seen you tweet about PhD life. Can you tell us a little bit about what your PhD/dissertation is about?

Now, I am enrolled in the PhD by research in Health Sciences in UP Manila, and I finished defending my proposal last June. I was supposed to defend my proposal in 2020 and then nagka-pandemic, so nagulo lahat, so hindi ko siya naasikaso. ‘Di ba the academic rules were, you have until May 2021 to go through your “utang” academics. So I was actually telling Dr. Erlyn Sana – siya kasi yung PhD adviser ko – na, “Ma’am, ‘di ko na kaya ata. Ayoko na.” And then she was saying, “Hindi pwede! I know it’s the pandemic, but you try, still!”

I was able to defend my proposal. My topic is actually [about] the use of Facebook for diabetes self-management education. Kasi I do that already; I post about diabetes information so those with diabetes who are following me on my page can learn from them – but, it’s not structured. So, I was thinking: what if I were to have a Facebook group and the posts are structured, like an online course – except that it’s on Facebook, kasi that’s where most of our patients are already comfortable being on? Yun yung premise ng aking study. It’s gonna be a mixed-methods study, so may qualitative part na sobrang hirap kasi hindi ako marunong noon. Pero, ito na naman ako na kung ano ang di ko alam, aralin natin para magawa natin – and that has brought me to so many things.

After this, what’s next for you? What projects or goals do you hope to achieve in the coming years?

When you win, you start thinking: “Okay, where do I go from here?” Obviously, you need to continue the work. So, I’m planning more workshops or possibly online courses for educators. The other week, I was at the [National Teacher Training Center] workshop, and I taught several teachers how to create an eBook. And this is where the “see one, do one” thing came in, ‘cause I haven’t ever created an ebook. I have [created a] PDF with links, but then Dean Melflor Atienza said, “For me, an eBook is where you can play the video inside of a sort of book. Do you know how to do that?”

I said, “No, I don’t know how to do that.”

She said, “Well, can you find out and then teach us how to do it?”

So, I found an app that was actually free; it’s called the Book Creator. Then, I made a book out of one of my course packs. When I went to the workshop at the NTTC, I just showed them how I did it. Now, people are making their own eBooks. Sabi ko, “That’s so much fun,” so I think I’ll have more projects coming off from queries like that. They’ll email me, “Iris, how do you do this?” And if it’s something that I’ve done before, then easy; but if it’s not, I go off and find the answer. It bothers me when I cannot answer. So, I go off and find the answer and when I find [it], I share it online or in these workshops.

It bothers me when I cannot answer. So, I go off and find the answer and when I find [it], I share it online or in these workshops. | Photo retrieved from

What has been the most challenging part of your journey so far? How did you overcome these challenges? Conversely, what has been the most fulfilling part?

The most challenging part is when you’re starting to do something for the first time and thinking about how it will be received. If it’s about education, you wonder how your students will react. So, for this semester, for example, I had to teach the medical informatics elective in 6 days. What used to be one semester of 16 weeks, I had to do it [in] 6 days. And then I had the MD-PhD naman na students, I had to teach them the informatics elective for 6 weeks instead of the usual 16. There’s always something coming up that I need to adapt [to] and I always worry, “Is it helping the students? Is it working? How do I do these things?”

The most fulfilling thing would be when at the end of the rotation, [the students] tell you that they enjoyed [it]. Sometimes, it takes years, eh. I have some grad students who took my course, for example, and then 3 or 4 years later, they would suddenly email me and say, “You know, you remember you taught us about this? And then at work, this happened, and I remembered what you told me, and then…” I think yun yung satisfactory thing about being a teacher. Something that you imparted [on] students helped them in some way, even if it’s not right away. And then they tell you about it – yun talaga. Yun yung fulfilling sa pagtuturo. I call that the “ripple effect.”

To be continued:

Part 3 | ‘The Dinner Table Is Sacred’

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