A Heartfelt Passion: Tan Sri Dr Robaayah Speaks on IJN’s Mission
As the Managing Director and CEO of Institut Jantung Negara (IJN – The National Heart Institute), Tan Sri Dr Robaayah Zambahari occupies a unique place in corporate Malaysia. Not only is she one of the few women MDs/CEOs in the country, she also has the distinction of being a practising clinician. As such, not only is she tasked with running the country’s leading heart care centre, she also puts in the hours in the clinic and the interventional suites (cardiac catheterisation laboratories) and participates in clinical research and trials, as IJN’s Senior Consultant Cardiologist. One of the pioneers of IJN, and indeed one of the first female cardiologists in the country, Tan Sri Dr Robaayah has witnessed first-hand the growth of IJN and Cardiovascular Disease management in Malaysia.
That Fateful Call
Even though it has been a quarter of a century since it happened, Tan Sri Dr Robaayah Zambahari remembers the events of the 18th of January 1989 as clearly as yesterday. At that time, as Head of the Cardiology Department at General Hospital Kuala Lumpur (GHKL), she received news that then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had experienced chest pain. After careful and thorough evaluation and investigation, he was recommended for coronary artery by-pass surgery.
The then Premier decided to put his faith in Malaysian expertise and undergo the operation at GHKL. The younger Tan Sri Dr Robaayah was one of the cardiologists looking after the very important patient, whose successful coronary by-pass operation was carried out on the 24th of January that same year.
It was the catalyst for the creation of IJN as it opened the eyes of many to the lurking dangers of heart disease in the country. And so in 1992, GHKL’s Cardiology and Cardiothoracic Surgery Departments, as well as the Cardiac Anaesthesiology Division, were separated from the main hospital to become the National Heart Institute, tasked with being the nation’s Centre of Excellence in Cardiovascular and Thoracic care, with Tan Sri Dr Robaayah as one of its first specialists.
The Early Days
Her involvement in heart care, however, goes back before those milestone events of 1989. As a young girl growing up in Batu Gajah, Perak, Tan Sri Dr. Robaayah was inspired with a love for science subjects by her teachers. So much so that when the time came for her to decide what course to pursue in university, she chose medicine, graduating in 1977.
That year was doubly significant, because not only did she became a fully-fledged medical practitioner, it was also when (the late) Datuk Dr Nik Zainal Abidin set up the Cardiology Division at GHKL – the precursor to IJN.
The advances that have been made since those early days are tremendous. The IJN MD and CEO recalls, “It was so different back then (in the 70s); we did not have the infrastructure, the knowledge and expertise for advanced cardiovascular care. In the late 1970s and early 1980s patients needing heart surgeries or other complicated procedures had to be referred to overseas centres.”
Today, IJN is able to handle the most complicated cardiovascular cases, and it is not only a referral hospital for heart cases from other medical centres in the country but is also sought out by patients seeking quality treatment. It has indeed been a dramatic shift of fortunes.
Tan Sri Dr Robaayah Zambahari was there from the beginning to not only see this take place but also play a part in it happening.
In 1982, she was qualified as a cardiologist and was assigned to GHKL where she worked closely with Datuk Dr Nik Zainal. Describing the late cardiologist as a mentor, Tan Sri Dr Robaayah would later succeed him as the Head of GHKL’s Cardiology Department in 1984.
And her story from then on took a straightforward path until the 18th of January 1989.
Wearing Two Hats
Tan Sri Dr Robaayah’s career has had a steady upwards trajectory – from being Head of the Cardiology Department at GHKL and then later at IJN, she became IJN’s Medical Director in 2005 before being made Managing Director and CEO in 2009. While it is definitely unusual for a woman to head such a large organisation as IJN in Malaysia, Tan Sri Dr Robaayah thinks nothing of it.
“Being a woman has never been part of the equation for me. Yes, I am proud to have been entrusted to lead IJN, but I like to think that good management and leadership is not gender specific,” she said. “It is like in the interventional and operating suites – the question is not whether the doctors or surgeons are men or women, but whether or not they can do the job.”
Tan Sri Dr Robaayah definitely can do the job – two jobs in fact. Her move into the corporate side does not mean she no longer practises clinical medicine and she still sees patients and performs procedures. She also participates in clinical research and clinical trials and actively takes part in scientific meetings locally and overseas as an invited faculty, speaker and live-case operator.
For the CEO, it is this aspect of IJN – a reflection of it being a clinician-led organisation – which makes it unique. “In other hospitals or medical centres, the person in charge of the administration and management is not an active clinician, so they may not fully understand the needs of the medical specialists and their patients. At the same time, the doctors do not get involved in the corporate and financial side, and therefore they may not appreciate the impact of cost on medical care,” she explained.
“This situation is avoided at IJN because both the Deputy CEO (Datuk Dr Mohd Azhari Yakub – who is also Head of the Cardiothoracic Department) and I are practising clinicians, so we know the needs of the medical profession. That helps us in our drive to make IJN the premier centre of excellence for heart care in the region. At the same time, when it comes to corporate matters, financial matters, management, and HR, we have our COO – Akmal Arief Mohd Fauzi to lend his expertise,” Tan Sri Dr Robaayah elaborated.
The Role of Women
Although she believes that being a woman is not and should not be a factor when it comes to management or practising medicine, Tan Sri Dr Robaayah believes that women have an important role to play when it comes to heart health. This is because they are the primary care-givers in the family, and therefore are better placed to influence the family’s eating and recreational habits.
“We always believe that prevention is better than cure,” she affirmed. “It all starts at home, with the food you eat and the exercise you do, and definitely mothers can encourage their family members to eat more healthful food and live a healthier lifestyle.”
Of course, while encouraging their family members to take care of their health (and hearts), women should not ignore their own risks. In a sobering revelation, Tan Sri Dr Robaayah revealed that 1 in 4 women in Malaysia pass away from cardiovascular disease, making it – and not cancer – the leading cause of death among women.
“One problem is that the symptoms of heart disease in women can be different from those of men,” IJN’s Chief Consultant Cardiologist explained. “For example, chest pains are usually present in men. But in women, the warning signs are more often non-specific and include fatigue and breathlessness. Since the most well-known and well-recognised symptom is chest pains, they do not seek medical treatment until it is too late.”
For Tan Sri Dr Robaayah, the answer lies in proper outreach and education – to teach women how to recognise the risks of a heart attack and how to prevent it. And this is what IJN has been doing, as part of its mission to look after the hearts of the nation.
In fact, most recently, on the 22nd of March this year, the IJN Women Health Screening Programme was held at the IJN Lobby. A joint-initiative of IJN and the National Heart Association (NHAM)’s Women Heart Health Organisation (WH2O), it comprised free health screenings and counselling for women, aerobic exercises conducted by IJN clinicians, physiotherapists and demonstrations on how to cook heart-healthy food. A healthy nation is a progressive nation, and as the standard bearer of Malaysia’s fight against heart disease, IJN is performing a national mission of great importance. For Tan Sri Dr Robaayah Zambahari – CEO, MD and Senior Consultant Cardiologist of IJN – the course is clear. “Everyone, whether man or woman, must make their health a priority. Heart disease is the main cause of death in Malaysia, and at IJN, we are focused on reducing that figure, not just through treatment and therapy, but also through preventative measures. I am very proud of our achievements, of the impact that we have made, and of how IJN is recognised at home and abroad as a true Malaysian treasure.”