Dr. Dennis preparing to show us the ins and outs of robotic surgery and Urology
What do you get when man meets machine?
Meet Dr. Dennis Serrano—one of the country’s leading robotic surgeons.
“Just tell me kung game na—I haven’t combed my hair yet!” Dr. Serrano says with a laugh before realizing the photoshoot has started. He rushes to the bathroom, fixes his hair, and cracks a smile as we start the interview.
Outside the operating room, Dr. Serrano is funny and light-hearted—a complete contrast to his steely, calm demeanor during tense transplant procedures. The “robot doctor” is also a patriot—he is determined to bridge the technology gap to bring world-class treatment to all Filipinos.
“I believe that our countrymen need and deserve the best and cutting-edge technology.” Dr. Serrano asserts. “Our patients do not need to go to Singapore, the US, or to Europe to get treated.” Aside from helping patients with their “shortcomings,” the urologist is also the president of the Philippine Society for Transplant Surgeons and the Philippine Association of Urologic Oncologists.
Yet, despite his heavy responsibilities and busy schedule, Dr. Serrano is clear about what matters most to him. “Perhaps if I succeed in everything else, but fail as a father, then everything would have been all for naught…” He muses. “Even if I don’t get all the accolades and all of the fame, all of the awards and recognition that I get from medicine… I hope that my children, in their adult life can say ‘Part of the reason I am who I am today is because of my father.’”
When it comes to finances, the father of four isn’t afraid to admit that his practice has carried over to other aspects of his life, sometimes to a fault. “Our credo is ‘Primum non nocere’ or ‘First, do no harm’ to our patients. I think we unconsciously apply it to our funds—first, do no harm, you know? [laughs].” This is something that Security Bank has changed.
“Security Bank has changed my outlook towards investing or managing my finances,” he states emphatically. “What I discovered while working with people in Security Bank is that they take great pains into making you understand the ins and outs on finances in a manner that can be applied immediately to what you need.” He adds: “On top of that, after having explained everything to you, they will still respect your decision. For me, importante yun, e—that I don’t get pushed into an investment or to a financial decision.”
On the surface, Dr. Dennis Serrano is a warm and witty soul—a trait we imagine is very useful in dealing with sensitive and challenging cases of Urology (such as problems with male reproductive organs). But in the operating room, he transforms into a man hell-bent on saving lives with tools of the future.
I’m a urologist and a transplant surgeon—as a sub-specialty I do kidney transplants. I’ve been in practice since I got back from the US in 1997, so that’s almost 20 years in practice. Recently, what we brought to the Philippines was the technology of robotics surgery. It is technology that’s only a decade old, made famous in the US and Europe. It’s really minimally invasive surgery made better with the use of a robot, therefore making it more precise—we’re using it to operate on prostate cancer. We started the program here at St. Luke’s in 2010.
We were the first one to do a robotic prostatectomy here and I’ve been doing it here since. So far, we’ve done around 260 robotic prostatectomy among Filipinos.
One of the things that I really like to do is to travel. I’ve seen most of the world but every time I travel, it’s like a great learning experience, it’s an opportunity to learn and bring back something new.
I chose Urology because when I was starting residency and I was starting my career, there weren’t a lot of specialists in the field of Urology. In fact, even now, there are only around 375 urologists in the country—and only 35 transplant surgeons for that matter. When there are 30,000 patients on dialysis and easily 5,000 of them may be in need of a kidney transplant at any time, you can just imagine the lack of medical care that is still out there.
It was really a toss-up between pediatric surgery and Urology, but I really pity sick kids. Pediatrics gets the better of me when I take care of kids. As a doctor, you have to be objective.
Every once in a while, you’ll lose a patient and you have to detach yourself from them—but I just couldn’t seem to detach myself from kids.
I deal with a lot of prostate cancer, I deal with a lot of kidney cancer, and you can just imagine when you are given the diagnosis—there are a lot of burdens that come to that.
Well let’s talk about male sexual dysfunction—not just in fertility… the touchier subject is erectile dysfunction: loss of libido, and all of that.
I think some people who have these problems can really get desperate at times. If you are a married couple and you’ve been trying [to conceive] for the past five years, it can really be depressing and exasperating. Fortunately for urologists, we have a partner in ob-gyns. It’s usually a multidisciplinary approach, so I think it makes it more reassuring for patients to understand that there is a team of doctors taking care of them and it’s not just the urologists but also for the females—the obstetrician-gynecologist.
I don’t think it makes them approach me differently. As a doctor, you have to be able to give the best care for your patients without promising them anything that isn’t realizable or achievable. Worse comes to worst, when we feel na wala nang pagasa when it comes to fertility, we’ll tell them “It might be time to think about adoption, instead.” You can imagine the frustration of these patients.
The more difficult ones that I have in terms of patient’s approach is cancer. I deal with a lot of prostate cancer, I deal with a lot of kidney cancer, and you can just imagine when you are given the diagnosis—there are a lot of burdens that come to that. It’s both personal and family, a lot of things dawn on the patient when we tell them “We just found out that you have cancer.”
The da Vinci robot was originally designed for military use where the operator/surgeon can be in a remote and safe distance hundreds of miles away while the robot can be docked in the field by paramedics on the field.
But remember, if we don’t have this what will happen is that our cancer patients will go abroad, diba? I mean the poor and the rich has just the same right to medical care as anybody else. It cannot be that medicine for the rich is different from the poor. That’s why we’ll be starting the robotic Urology program soon at PGH so that we can bring all of this to our poor patients.
Funding. The other big problem that we have is access to this type of healthcare technology for our patients. I mean, a robotic prostatectomy is expensive here in the country. How many people can afford an operation?
So what did we do? We collaborated with Dr. Gerardo Legaspi, director of the Philippine General Hospital, and I’m glad to tell you that PGH will buy a robot soon so that we can do charity cases. After all, it has to be accessible to the biggest segment of our population, diba?
It was serendipitous. When I started in the hospital, we had two banks: one bank, and the other was Security Bank. So I opened accounts to both and I did transactions with both. Over the next couple of months, I noticed that the people in Security Bank were more personalized, more attentive, and more accommodating to me.
The other bank had more branches. In fact, my wife was banking with that bank and she said that it would be easier for me to stay with that bank. But really, 90% of my accounts here are with Security Bank, and what attracted me was how personalized the experience was for me. They were able to take care of everything that I needed as far as setting up my business here in St. Luke’s.
But there’s a lot that us doctors do not understand about the banking and the financial world. While some of us do make an effort to understand it and ride the tide and the waves of the ups and downs of the financial market, it’s usually extra work for us to understand it.
I’ve been with them for the past 6 years—my business has grown in St. Luke’s together with Security Bank.
What I discovered in working with people in Security Bank is that they take great pains into making you understand the ins and outs on finances in a manner that can be applied immediately to what you need. On top of that, after having explained everything to you, they will still respect your decision. For me, importante yun, e—that I don’t get pushed into an investment or to a financial decision.
Sometimes, some bank managers tend to do that and say “Doc, let’s invest in this and that.” When I made investment decisions with Security Bank, I felt that the decisions were really my own and the explanations were given to me to help me make a really good decision.
It’s different if you tell me “Doc, invest here kasi kikita ito.” Then after a year, I’ll wonder “Bakit nalulugi tayo, bakit ‘di tayo kumikita?” You tend to blame. But the way Security Bank presented it to me was very realistic and they covered all the aspects. The personal way they have treated me is one of the best I’ve experienced.
I think SB also really values their clients. They know that if they don’t give clients the quality of service you deserve, then you might go away. I mean, they might lose an investment with you now, but it’s important that they don’t lose you as a client. I think that’s the sort of mindset they have. I’ve been with them for the past 6 years—my business has grown in St. Luke’s together with Security Bank.
The number one thing that I tell them is that you shouldn’t impose limits on your dream—it won’t cost you anything to dream as much as you can or as high as you can.
But of course, your achievement will be determined by how high or how big your dream is, so let the limits be limitless, let it be undefined. Dream big and run after your dreams. It will not cost you anything.
Ah, well I’m now 51 years old and they say that for a doctor, your best days are in your fifties and sixties. But at some point you have to slow down. I think the next two decades will be the busiest years of my practice. But I’d also like to watch my children grow up and start lives of their own. By that time, maybe my wife and I will have more time to travel.
I think that there should come a point wherein making a living should not hinder you from living. Eventually, I think I’ll go back to the academe and concentrate on teaching more—I’m also a part-time associate professor in the University of the Philippines.
I don’t plan to be DOH Secretary or anything [laughs]. Nothing really spectacular. I’m ok with whatever small contribution I can do to ensure that our society’s future will be better. We really still have hope for this country, diba? Otherwise, if we don’t have hope for our country, who else will?
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Photography by Kenneth Aballa