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‘The Dinner Table Is Sacred’ | Inside the Cauldron with Dr. Iris Thiele Isip-Tan (Part 3)

By Frances Ho (UPCM 2024)

This is Part 3 of our interview series with Dr. Iris Thiele Isip-Tan, where she explores the challenges of work-life balance and everyday life amidst a pandemic. She discusses her views on medical education in Part 1 (insert hyperlink) and her journey in academia in Part 2.

How do you balance graduate school and academia with clinical work and family life?

Yeah, that’s always a question talaga. My kids now are grown-up, so they’re 18 and 15. So, they don’t require as much care from me – in fact, they’re quite independent. Ang hirap na lang rin is siyempre, this pandemic, I’m always at home; so [one way is] trying to find common time – usually meals—so that we can all get together and still bond as a family.

I miss having summer vacations. I’m the type of doctor that really, I disappear for two weeks during summer. I cancel patients; I go on leave talaga for two weeks, and we take a family vacation. I miss doing that for two years already!

Siguro nag-iba lang ngayon sa pandemic since everyone is glued to their screens, so, my husband says, “The dinner table is sacred. No gadgets!” – and that includes me! You have to have little rules like that. We really have to find those times to still connect outside of our activities on screen.

Siguro it helps kasi si Dr. Rey Tan, my husband, he’s not techie. And it annoys [the kids] to no end: “Iris is so techie! How come you’re not techie?” But, he’s the one that balances it off. He will say, “Okay, it’s time to close your laptop. Now. That’s enough.” He’s the one who pulls me offline – or else baka lamunin na ako ng online forever! But, I did manage to get him on Twitter, and now he’s kinda addicted to Twitter.

What does your typical day look like?

I have a planner where I have what it looks like for the week. Usually, I would look at my meetings. On really bad days, I would have five meetings—or six, sunod-sunod. Actually, ang weird nga eh. Mondays are relatively okay; my worst days are usually Wednesdays and Fridays for some reason. A typical day would be… I look at my calendar and say, “Okay how many meetings do I have today?” And since I have this perennial list of to-dos, I decide: “Which one am I gonna do today because it’s needed tomorrow or soon?”

I’m very lucky because I have a good support at home, that I don’t need to cook or plan the menu, so I don’t worry about those things. Someone cleans the house and everything. So, I’m really focused lang on my work, my family. I don’t have to worry about the household. Yun siguro yung advantage ko.

Before, I would work until after dinner and then one day, somebody said to me, “You know it’s a pandemic, right? And whatever it is can wait. Because there’s a pandemic.” So now, if my meeting ends at 6 or 6:30, then we’d have dinner at 7; after that, I try to relax, which means that I read books that are not related to what I’m working on, I watch Netflix, or I go on Twitter just for casual browsing.

On weekends, [it] depends on whether I decide I should work or not. Ang nangyayari, if you don’t demarcate, you don’t even appreciate if it’s a weekday or a weekend. Since nothing changes ‘cause I’m just at home, para siyang Groundhog Day lang na ulit nang ulit. So, that’s why I’ve decided I’ll do other things on weekends, just to demarcate that “this is a weekend, okay?” During the pandemic last year, I got myself a keyboard. I used to play the piano when I was little, so I said, “Maybe I’ll try to relearn how to play the piano.” I did try doing crochet, kung anu-ano. I still have my coloring books – yung mga ganyan, just so that the weekend is separate from my work week.

That’s why I’ve decided I’ll do other things on weekends, just to demarcate that “this is a weekend, okay?” | Photo credits to Dr. Iris Thiele Isip-Tan

What advice can you give to students who wish to pursue a path like yours?

You know when you get into med school, they always tell you that to be a doctor, you have to be a lifelong learner. And I think that’s really true – because medicine changes so fast.

It’s all about pursuing the questions. [In] one of the readings I came across [in health informatics], someone said that [during] the course of a clinical consultation, a doctor might have anywhere from 5-20 questions. Some of those, he will pursue, and some of those, he won’t. For example, if I’m seeing someone for diabetes, ‘di ba there’s a clinical scenario; for example, you have to pick a treatment. You know that from evidence-based medicine, if we had to compare drugs, you would have to go and do a PubMed search. But then, since you’re in the clinic, you might not have time – so you just decide on a course of treatment by intuition. It’s really pursuing the questions. If you had that informatics tool – for example, a clinical decision support system, your personal digital assistant – or if you could go on PubMed right away even if the patient is still there, you can serve [them] better. But, if you decide pa lang na, “No, I’m not gonna pursue the question; bahala na, I’ll just give this, and then let’s see what happens,” that might not help eh. Yun ang advice ko: try to be a lifelong learner and pursue your questions.

This quote attributed to Lao Tzu may be a familiar one: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” As comically cliché as the quote may seem (especially to those of us who tinkered around with Tumblr blogs during the faraway time of 2012), it is an apt one. Dr. Iris Isip-Tan’s achievements are, without a doubt, formidable; however, they are the fruit of countless questions pursued. The most important of these is probably the humblest one – yet the one that all trailblazers must ask:

“How can we make this process better?”

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