Professor Joseph J.Y. Sung is an eminent gastroenterologist dedicated to research, teaching and patient care in digestive diseases. He decided on a medical career when he was young: in 1983 he received the MB BS degree from the University of Hong Kong, and since then Professor Sung has been on a journey to medical triumphs.

Professor Sung’s research interests include intestinal bleeding, Helicobacter Pylori, peptic ulcer, hepatitis B, and cancers related to the digestive system.  He pioneered the use of endoscopic treatment for ulcer bleeding, which has subsequently drastically reduced the need for surgical operation. Further, his research also gave proof both to the relationship between H pylori and peptic ulcer diseases and that, with a one-week course of antibiotics, the H pylori infection could be cured and the peptic ulcer successfully treated. Such achievements have been a tremendous blessing to patients, and his impact on global gastroenterological research has been felt far and wide.

I chose to become a gastroenterologist 35 years ago. Gastroenterology is a unique specialty, because it focuses on the largest organ system in the body and many people suffer from either digestive disease or liver disease. Also, it is a specialty that straddles many disciplines, from medicine to surgery, to endoscopy, basic science and even nowadays artificial intelligence. That’s why it’s very interesting – it’s a fast-moving ground for scientific advancement.

Professor Sung’s career is an excellent example of what can be achieved through a dedication to both teaching and research. After obtaining his medical degree in Hong Kong in 1983, he joined the Prince of Wales Hospital, the teaching hospital of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), as a physician.  In 1992 he was appointed a lecturer in Medicine at CUHK, and elevated to the position of Professor of Medicine and Therapeutics in 1998.  In 1999, he assumed the duties of the Chairman of the Department of Medicine and Therapeutics, and in 2002 he became the Associate Dean of Medicine (Clinical).

Professor Sung’s research has resulted in an impressive body of work: he has published close to 600 papers and authored or edited 15 books. His articles are most frequently seen in learned international journals such as The New England Journal of Medicine and Lancet, and have won him awards for excellence on many occasions.

But the motto that has guided him through thick and thin over his long career has always been an aphorism of Sun Simiao, the author of the earliest Chinese encyclopaedia for clinical practice, Qianjin Yaofang: “Great physicians cure the state; good ones cure patients; third-rate physicians cure diseases.”

A critical juncture in Professor Sung’s career came in 2003, when SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, wreaked havoc on Hong Kong. As capable a doctor as one could be, Professor Sung, who was then Chief of Service in Medicine at the Prince of Wales Hospital and who led the medical team in daily combat with the deadly disease, saw the limitations of being a doctor. “Doctors possess the ability to cure a patient’s illness, and it is a very meaningful job, and although I never thought that non-participation was an option, at the end of the day we only have two hands and 24 hours – what we could do was very limited,” Professor Sung explained.

Since then, he has gravitated more towards education. By empowering more students with values and professional integrity, he hopes that in this way he can achieve more than he ever could on his own. It is in this spirit that Professor Sung established the Institute of Digestive Disease (IDD) in 2006, while in 2010 he was appointed the seventh Vice-Chancellor and President of CUHK. “Life is just like a football match: I hope to use my second half to attempt another form of tactics, and to redefine my attack. I hope to be able to do something of greater value, something that will have a greater impact on society.”

IDD has been created to bring together gastroenterologists, surgeons, intervention radiologists, pathologists, microbiologists, psychiatrists, scientists and even engineers under the same roof, all striving towards excellence in carrying out research and education, as well as offering the best services to those suffering from gastrointestinal disorders. Since its inception, the institute has expanded rapidly and now comprises a PRC government-approved State Key Laboratory, a cancer education centre, a hepatitis B research centre, a GI clinical trial and outcome research, a centre for digestive health, and an endoscopy training and education unit that has been named a world-class centre of excellence.

Professor Sung’s achievements in medical services and medical research have also earned him important awards from both local and international bodies. In 2008 Professor Sung was honoured by the Prevent Cancer Foundation of the United States with the Laurel Award. In 2009, his seminal lectures on peptic ulcer bleeding won him the Marshall and Warren Lecture Award. In the same year, he was also awarded the Endoscopy Award by the German Society of Gastroenterology. In 2013, he received the Master of the World Gastroenterology Organization (WGO) Award from the World Gastroenterology Organization & WGO Foundation. In 2017, he was honoured with the international Herbert Falk Award, in recognition of his excellent achievement in the field of gastroenterology.

As an old Chinese saying goes, “Never forget why you started, and your mission can be accomplished.” After six years as the Vice-Chancellor and President of The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Professor Sung has returned to IDD- once again as the director- to continue his legacy, as well as the work of a practising doctor, the role that defines him and inspires him to this day. Even after 36 years of playing in the field, his vocation is as strong as ever. “I still see training future scientists and clinicians as a very important role of mine. I also like to participate, perhaps as a backseat driver, in some of the research opportunities that still exist. Last but not least, I think seeing patients myself, looking after them in their various kinds of suffering, will be a major part of the end of my career, because after all I am still a doctor.”