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By Inga Louisa Stevens, Contributing Writer
Growing up in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the 1970s, Dr Muna Tahlak remembers it as a time when the whole country was going through a period of elation after the unification of the country in 1971. She remembers the distinct feeling of her friends, parents and teachers sharing a sense of joy for the future, a sense that anything can be achieved. Now, some 40 years later, as she looks back at her career as a consultant gynaecologist and obstetrician and CEO of emirate’s largest maternity and paediatric hospital, Latifa Hospital, she thanks the leaders of the country for always bestowing on her the very best opportunities to further her education and to continually better herself as a leader.
It was during these years in the 70s that Dr Muna began dreaming of a career in medicine. Despite having no other family members in the medical field at the time, she remembers always being encouraged to become the “first physician in the family”. “My mother told me that as a child, I would always play with little stethoscopes and first aid boxes and, by Grade 8, my classmates would affectionately refer to me as ‘Doctor’.”
Dr Muna had many inspiring female role models at school. She says she will never
forget her Grade 6 Islamic Studies teacher who tirelessly encouraged her to read and explore the world outside the school curriculum. She also has a particularly poignant memory of her Grade 7 Science teacher bringing her a science kit as a gift from a trip to London. “These women were a big inspiration for me as I could sense their own passion for learning and discovering new things.”
With the encouragement of her family and teachers, Dr Muna graduated from high school with top grades and subsequently had the privilege of choosing a scholarship and what to study and where. Dr Muna was accepted to the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin in 1990, where she completed seven years of medical school followed by her internship (residency). “Medical school was tough, especially for the first couple of years, but I had a clear goal in my mind that I was determined to become a physician and that I was capable of seeing it through. I always knew I wanted to return to the UAE as a fully trained physician, ready to serve the people in my country. There was always an end in sight for me that kept me motivated to achieve my goals.”
A pivotal point in her medical studies was her internship rotation at Drogheda Hospital in Dublin where she had the opportunity to assist in deliveries and attend on emergency surgeries for women. “This was when I realised that, as a woman, being in this field really empowers and helps other women in what is a very important time in their lives,” Dr Muna says.
Having completed her undergraduate studies and residency, Dr Muna was faced with the decision of whether to continue her postgraduate training or whether to return to Dubai to start practicing medicine. She decided to move to the USA to continue her studies at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, which is ranked as number one hospital in gynaecology in USA. Here, she was able to specialise in Laparoscopic surgeries and treating women with high-risk pregnancies.
Dr Muna returned to Dubai in 2006 where she joined Latifa Hospital (previously known as Al Wasl Hospital) as a consultant gynaecologist obstetrician. Here, she became heavily involved in training and teaching the residents at Latifa Hospital. “I was inspired by what I had learned during my studies abroad and wanted to replicate this way of learning in my place of work,” explains Dr Muna. At Latifa Hospital, trainee physicians (residents) must complete a five-year training curriculum and rotations with specific objectives and goals. Acting physicians must also complete continuing education in order to stay current in their specialities. Staff members can apply to take study leave to pursue Continuing Medical Education in order to renew their medical licence.
On an annual basis, Dr Muna and her colleagues have to complete a series of papers in order to stay current with the various Board certifications. “It is extremely important that we keep up as medicine is a field that brings new developments every day,” she adds.
Dr Muna’s hard work and dedication to her field over the years had not gone unnoticed and, by 2010, she was appointed as the head of obstetrics and gynaecology at Latifa Hospital. In 2014, she was appointed CEO. This was a momentous time for female leaders in healthcare in the UAE as two other women were also appointed as hospital CEO’s; Dr Alya Saif Al Mazrouei, CEO of Rashid Hospital; and Dr Moza Ajaif Al Zaabi, CEO of Al Jalila Children’s Speciality Hospital.
With a new executive title comes a whole host of new responsibilities, not just within the hospital walls, but also at home. Anyone juggling family life with work in a hospital will face some unique challenges, as Dr Muna knows very well. Long hours spent at the hospital means that Dr Muna’s two young daughters often ask why their mother was always late coming home or why she needed to go back to work.
“I don’t think this juggling act will ever stop but the most important thing is to have a good support network around you that allows you to manage all your societal roles – as a mother, sister, daughter, wife, doctor and CEO,” she explains. “Both my mother and my husband are extremely supportive of my work and they are the reason I have been able to get where I am in my professional life. Having seen the training I went through, they both knew what to expect with me. Both at home and at work, it is important to have a team around you that you can trust.”
And with that team firmly in place, Dr Muna has been able to implement many changes at Latifa Hospital during her time as CEO. The hospital is presently the only facility in the UAE to have received an international accreditation as a centre of excellence in invasive gynecological surgery in 2014. The American Association of Gynecological Laparoscopy (AAGL) recently accredited Latifa Hospital as a center of excellence in Gynecological Minimally Invasive Surgery (COEMIG).
“Minimally invasive surgeries lead to better patient outcomes as they are less invasive, lead to fewer complications and facilitate quicker post-surgery recovery. We are extremely proud that the hospital has become a pioneer in minimally invasive gynecology surgeries and we aim to further develop our expertise in this field in order to bring the best possible care for the women of the UAE,” says Dr Muna. Today, Latifa Hospital even has women seeking treatment for the most complicated cases from outside the UAE, from as far as Europe and the USA.
Setting up the centre of excellence meant having to be able to train the staff in gynecological endoscopic surgery. “We were extremely lucky to have Professor Arnaud Wattiez as the head of the hospital’s gynaecology surgery department. Prof Wattiez has been a mentor and instructor to surgeons in minimally invasive gynaecologic surgery (MIGS) all over the world and his work is at the forefront of technical advances in endoscopic gynaecological surgery,” Dr Muna says.
Today, above 90% of all gynaecological surgeries at Latifa Hospital are being done through minimally invasive methods which ensures fewer complications and faster recovery for patients. “We see more than 400 patients a year, many of whom are able to go home the next day,” explains Dr Muna.
Latifa Hospital’s paediatric services are also highly regarded in the region. The hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) has recently increased from 43 to 63 beds making it one of the largest units in Dubai. As the referral unit for the most complicated obstetric cases in the UAE, the unit still runs at 100% occupancy. The unit is part of the Vermont Oxford Network, an international network of NICUs comprised of teams of health professionals representing neonatal intensive care units and level I and II care centres around the world, against which Latifa Hospital benchmarks itself.
There are other exciting new developments around the corner for Latifa Hospital. In November 2017, the hospital plans to go live with the DHA’s unified electronic medical record system, Salama. This DHA-wide project aims to provide patients and doctors access to medical records through a patient portal and ensure that the electronic patient medical record is available across the DHA health facilities. “This is epic and we are very excited to have this as it will help improve patient care and patient safety and it will improve risk management and organisational quality,” says Dr Muna. “This will reduce the patient’s waiting time, reduce costs, reduce medical errors and allow patients to communicate with doctors quickly.”
The future looks bright for this vibrant, articulate and immensely competent CEO. In her humble manner, Dr Muna attributes her professional success to constantly being exposed to the opportunity to learn and develop her skills as both a physician and a leader. Having been enrolled in the Mohammed Bin Rashid Leadership programme a few years ago, and more recently in the Future Government Leadership Programme, Dr Muna feels that there is never a time when the UAE’s leaders are not encouraging you to improve your competencies and become a better leader.
In 2017, Dr Muna was bestowed the accolade of 2nd place for the “Best CEO in Dubai” in the 20th edition of the Dubai Government Excellence Programme (DGEP); a true testament to her dedication and immense abilities as an inspiring female CEO and capable physician.