Many professionals agree that, money aside, their work provides two great rewards: the chance to serve others and the opportunity to pass on their expertise to colleagues or students, who can then help an even wider cross-section of the community.
That is exactly what Gabriela Chong has discovered since working as an orthoptist at the Tuen Mun Eye Centre. She was originally inspired to go into the field by the fact that her grandmother had a long-term eye disease, and she has never regretted that decision. "Seeing her suffering, I realised that people with eye problems could lose self-confidence and their trust in other people," Ms Chong explains. "Without good eyesight, a person's life undergoes drastic changes."
After obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree in biology at the University of British Columbia, Ms Chong won a three-year Hospital Authority scholarship to study orthoptics at the University of Sheffield in the UK. She was one of only two successful candidates from 150 applicants. Having completed the course, she returned to Hong Kong and joined her current employer in 1998.
Every working day she can expect to see at least 30 patients, many of whom are children with amblyopia (lazy eye), strabismus (squints), visual discomfort, or binocular coordination problems. Adult patients more commonly have eye problems arising from neurogenic disorders including cranial nerve palsies, isolated extra-ocular muscle pareses, and ophthalmoplegic syndromes. Ms Chong also conducts visual assessments for patients with cataracts and glaucoma.
Typical treatments include prescribing prism lenses for patients with double vision and occlusion therapy (covering the normal eye) for treating amblyopia. Ms Chong says that children aged up to seven respond best to treatment and, therefore, it is important to have visual screening for youngsters to reduce avoidable problems in childhood.
Prerequisites of the job include being dedicated, caring, sensitive to the needs of the sick, and able to handle child patients well
Wanting to contribute more, Ms Chong last year became the first Chinese orthoptist to work as a volunteer for the charity ORBIS in China. Having read about a British volunteer who helped to save people's sight in developing countries, she realised it was possible to do the same. "I was touched by her contribution and wanted to use my own expertise to help," she says. "It is always better to give than to receive and when you can relieve people's problems, particularly physical ones, and see their lives change, it gives you a real sense of happiness."
Last October, Ms Chong therefore joined two other volunteer orthoptists to conduct a week-long pediatric ophthalmology training programme for Harbin Medical University. The project included clinical sessions and surgical techniques, as well as the first vision screening programme in a local kindergarten. The team gave 10 lectures to a total of 118 ophthalmologists from Heilongjiang province, explained the importance of early screening, demonstrated orthoptics procedures, and shared diagnostic knowledge.
"It was surprising to see that such a big hospital only had one chart for visual acuity tests," she says. "But the whole programme was successful in enlightening the local doctors about updated ophthalmology practices." The visit has already borne fruit. Ms Chong recently received an email from one of her Harbin students confirming that a full screening programme for children has now been started. "The chance to have helped so many people is something I really treasure," she adds.
Although the profession has been practised in other parts of the world for more than 100 years, Hong Kong only got its first orthoptist in 1982. Ms Chong is now one of 12 practising locally and says the prerequisites of the job include being dedicated, caring, sensitive to the needs of the sick, and able to handle child patients well.
Regrettably, Hong Kong does not provide the necessary training, so it is only possible to qualify overseas. Therefore, recruitment is not straightforward, especially since there are so few Chinese-speaking orthoptists who are also familiar with the local culture and keen to work in Hong Kong. The Hospital Authority suspended scholarships for studying orthoptics overseas in 1997, but this decision is now under review.
These factors concern Ms Chong, who believes the profession lacks adequate support and needs more experienced practitioners to develop further. Nevertheless, she hopes that orthoptists can start to collaborate more closely with pediatricians to raise awareness about the detection of eye problems and ensure early treatment for children.
As orthoptics is still new to China, hospitals and clinics have yet to assess the need for professionals in the field and, therefore, no definite job opportunities are available on the mainland at present. However, Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan and Singapore are actively recruiting orthoptists from overseas, particularly those with appropriate language skills.