Profile: Dr Alvin Chong

Dr Alvin Chong

“I wanted to help people.”

Alvin Chong“I have wanted to be a doctor since I was a child. Our family doctor was helpful as well as deeply respected. I wanted to be like him. My mother encouraged me to be compassionate, kind and to help people. Wanting to help is my core calling,” says Melbourne dermatologist Dr Alvin Chong.

Born in Malaysia and raised in Singapore, Dr Alvin Chong arrived in Melbourne at the age of 18. After brief stints whilst an undergraduate student working as a waiter, kitchenhand and actor, his first medical job was as an intern at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne.

“My first job as a doctor was as a dermatology resident. I was lucky enough to be mentored by Professor Robin Marks and Dr Harvey Rotstein, senior dermatologists who were encouraging and supportive. I initially wanted to be a psychiatrist, but working with them got me interested in dermatology instead. To be able to visually identify a problem, diagnose and then treat the disease made dermatology the most appealing area of medicine.”

Currently, Dr Alvin Chong is the principal dermatologist at Ivanhoe Dermatology Clinic and runs a public outpatient clinic at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne. He is also the Head of the Transplant Dermatology Clinic at Skin and Cancer Foundation Victoria – the first dedicated transplant dermatology clinic in Australia.

“I love being able to help people in their time of need. To be able to use my skill and knowledge to help someone who is suffering, to cure, to reassure, to comfort- this is such a privilege. I am so fortunate to be able to do this for a living. I build therapeutic relationships with my patients and they have given me as much, if not more, than I have given them. If I could do anything, I would like to be able to see with absolute clarity the steps that need to be taken for the best outcomes.”

Dr Alvin Chong is also heavily involved with education as the Victorian Examiner on the National Examinations Committee for the Australasian College of Dermatologists (ACD), a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne and through education programs at St Vincent’s Hospital and the Skin and Cancer Foundation Victoria.

“There is a great responsibility in shaping trainees paths and guiding the next generation of dermatologists. I am passionate about teaching. I get a lot out of it and it is good to question your own knowledge.”

Over the last ten years, Dr Alvin Chong has also run a number of workshops aimed at General Practitioners (GPs) on Skin Cancer Management and Inflammatory Skin Diseases.

“I had the focus, knowledge and organisational skills, so I just did it. I am fortunate that fellow dermatologists and registrars have been willing and supportive in these ventures. I like working with people to build things which are bigger than the sum of their parts. I have been very pleased by the impact we have made on the GPs and trainees, as well as their patients. Each person we upskill can have a huge impact on the skin health of their community.”

In his spare time, Dr Alvin Chong enjoys travelling with his family, reading and listening to 80s music. His favourite sporting hero is John Landy, who famously stopped mid-race to help his fallen competitor, Ron Clarke.

“The best kind of sporting hero is one who would place another person in front of victory.”

Focus on skin cancer

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in Australia, affecting up to 70% of the population by the time they reach age 70. Skin cancers develop as a result of sun-damage on susceptible skin. In Australia, with high ambient ultraviolet light and a genetically susceptible fair-skinned population, this becomes a real problem.

For Dr Alvin Chong, skin cancer makes up 40% of his work in private practice, and nearly all of his work in transplant dermatology.

“We are fortunate that the population is generally well educated on what to look out for and GPs, as the primary carers, tend to refer early. Patients can be anxious, but most cases are low risk skin cancers and are easily treated. We are smarter now, most of the community know the prevention strategies and even young children are protecting themselves correctly.”

“However, complacency is one of the biggest issues. I see this all around me – particularly on the beaches in summer. Parents may smother their children in sunscreen but are exposing their own unprotected skin in the sun and getting burnt. There is a sense of ‘it’s only a tan’ or ‘it’s only a sunburn’ rather than seeing the potential risk behind such behaviour and the fact that sun damage is cumulative.”

“More research on the common skin cancers like BCCs (those that don’t spread internally) and SCCs (those that can spread internally) is needed. These are relatively understudied compared to melanomas, but make up 90% of skin cancers and are a cause of significant morbidity in the community. A potential ‘holy grail’ would be vaccination against HPV viruses which may have a large part to play in the pathogenesis of SCC. This is a complex theory that is currently being researched, but is a possibility.”

Melanoma is a dangerous cancer which can spread internally. About 1,500 people die as a result of melanoma annually in Australia, a figure that is similar to our road toll.

“Advanced melanoma which has spread internally used to be a death sentence. Now we have targeted therapies which act on tumour cells with certain mutations, and immune checkpoint inhibitors, which activate the immune system to kill tumour cells. These treatments are often effective in treating advanced melanomas. They are expensive, but give hope.”

Fast facts

Doctor-patient relationship style: Partnership
Special interests: Transplant dermatology and education
Dream holiday destination: Galapagos Islands
Favourite movie: The Matrix.