Occupational therapists in short supply for Hong Kong’s elderlyAugust 4, 2015
Veteran occupational therapist David Lau Chi-ho sees over 200 elderly patients a year, carrying out individual rehabilitation work with each of them.
Lau is part of the small group of practitioners from the profession working in the elderly services sector, an area plagued by manpower shortages, especially in the fields of physiotherapy and occupational therapy.
"The number of cases we shoulder often verges on overload. Visiting three elderly residents a day should be the ideal," says Lau, 35, who has been working in the sector for 13 years.
But Lau handles four to five cases a day, each for 45 minutes to an hour. Each patient sees him once every three months when he conducts physical and cognitive checks on them.
Keeping up with the busy schedule is a challenge. He works for an NGO providing outreach services, but says the workload in the private sector - in which he worked for five years before his current post - is little better.
"They might have to go to one elderly care home in the morning and another in the afternoon," Lau says. He once visited 10 care facilities in a single week, working with a number of different patients at each one.
Lau has now chosen to work with patients in their own homes as he believes it's more beneficial to their daily lives than working in a hospital or clinic setting. But for many younger therapists, practising in a public hospital provides vital training and exposure to a variety of cases.
Cynthia Chong Ka-wing entered the field of occupational therapy three years ago after graduating from Polytechnic University. She practises in a public hospital, mainly working with older patients.
"The elderly have been toiling their entire life - I want them to enjoy their old age," she says.
Chong says handling elderly patients is more complicated than the average case because therapists often need to make use of tools to create an easier living environment, such as handles in the bathroom to prevent falls.
"Ageing is the current trend in the population, but the development of elderly services in Hong Kong has been rather slow," the 25-year-old says. She believes there needs to be greater emphasis placed on illness prevention.
Chong is now studying for a master's degree in gerontology. She says by understanding how different medics approach caring for the elderly, she has learnt to take a more holistic approach to providing care.
Samuel Chan Yan-chi, operations general manager for the Haven of Hope Christian Service, says hospitals are like an "alley of wooden men", providing a large number of cases for fresh graduates to work on to gain experience.
"Some young therapists return to hospitals after working two or three years at an NGO," says Chan, who also heads Hong Kong's Occupational Therapy Association.
There are 2,623 physiotherapists and 1,688 occupational therapists registered in the city.
A physiotherapist focuses on physical health, while occupational therapists deal mainly with cognitive and environmental issues including dementia.