Occupational therapy encompasses the therapeutic use of meaningful goal-driven activities to evaluate and treat individuals suffering from either a disease or disorder, impairment, activity limitation or participation restriction which impedes independent functioning in daily roles. It is also increasingly administered to promote general health and wellness.
Joanne Mok, occupational therapist at Uncle James Child Development Centre, St James' Settlement, dedicates her life to supporting people trying to achieve their optimum functioning level, and therefore helping them lead practical and fulfilling lives.
Inspired by an information session at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University where the mission of occupational therapists was spotlighted, Ms Mok chose to study a three-year degree programme designed to meet world standards but with emphasis on local needs in Hong Kong. Graduating in 2005, she immediately joined the meaningful profession.
"I obtained both academic and practical knowledge throughout the programme, particularly during the 1,000 placement hours of direct contact with people from different sectors of society. Patients ranged from infants in hospitals, children in primary schools and adults in rehabilitation centres to elders residing in retirement homes," Ms Mok says.
Traditionally, occupational therapists supported people with chronic illnesses or disabilities. Today however, the job increasingly involves working with healthy members of the population in diverse settings including hospitals, outpatient clinics, non-governmental organisations, community centres, workplaces, schools and elderly homes. The more comprehensive range of services influences the way people engage in everyday activities.
With a qualification recognised by the World Federation of Occupational Therapists, Ms Mok considered adding research experience to her resume, choosing to work with mentally challenged adults upon completion of her studies. Now, she helps youngsters in Uncle James Child Development Centre, a self-financing organisation supporting children with differing degrees of developmental disorders, such as autism, dyslexia, speech delay and coordination problems.
Routinely, Ms Mok carries out psychological and intellectual assessments to help parents understand their children's developmental needs. Based on the results, she designs and delivers sensory integrated training to assist children's integration or reintegration into their families, schools and social life.
"In our specially designed training rooms, the children practise sufficient exercises. With specific tools and equipment, plus close monitoring and care, children usually develop the skills to cope with more comprehensive study and leisure activities. The speed and dexterity with which they carry out daily living tasks also improves. This noticeable progression is the most motivating part of my work," Ms Mok notes.
Aside from face-to-face coaching with children, Ms Mok also designs home programmes to boost the effectiveness of the weekly therapy. With close parental cooperation and regular evaluation of domestic environments, she designs follow-up activities to increase independence levels.
Meanwhile, to promote the physical health of children aged 1.5 to 2.5 years through group activities and games, Ms Mok now partakes in the centre's new "Gym Gym Baby" programme. With parental support, toddlers enjoy a series of training and sensory experiences which strengthen limbs and increase muscle mass.
Ms Mok's job is never dull because professional occupational therapists must be adept in several areas. An example would be devising a substitute method for holding a fork to enable a person with no grip strength to feed independently. In this situation, having creativity is as important as formal training.
"There are many ways to help people in our profession. We apply our wealth of skills and incorporate them into clients' daily lives. In one memorable case, I actually recommended playing mahjong to a senior citizen as a revitalising activity for her brain," Ms Mok recalls.
Furthermore, occupational therapists are in touch with the extended networks around their clients. Families, teachers, doctors, nurses, physical therapists, speech therapists, social workers and other occupational therapists all add to the interdisciplinary team approach to providing health-promoting services.
Ms Mok, who is currently completing a master's degree in occupational therapy, adds that the career outlook for occupational therapists has remained buoyant. She believes that opportunities will increase as demand for occupational therapists in all sectors will supercede the number of local graduates.
"Both new and experienced occupational therapists will find satisfying positions in this profession. For people looking for career opportunities, places in government organisations and community centres abound. Experienced professionals in the field, who possess entrepreneurship and the necessary aspirations may also run their own private practices if they are so inclined," Ms Mok advises.