If you suffer from back pain, a sports injury or a longstanding muscle problem, you have probably tried every combination of painkillers, prescriptions and rest in the hope of getting yourself back in top shape. Perhaps what you should be doing is consulting a trained physiotherapist whose techniques, ranging from manual therapy and acupuncture to ultrasound and supervised exercises, will relieve pain, restore movement and go a long way to preventing further problems.
"Patients must be closely assessed before giving treatment so that the underlying causes of their injuries are fully understood," says Warren Lam, a physiotherapist registered in both Hong Kong and Australia. "One of the principles of the profession is that cures are sought without the use of surgery or medicines," he adds.
Mr Lam runs his own physiotherapy centres offering independent consultations and treatment and, with his partners, collaborates closely with the medical profession to provide long-term rehabilitation services for outpatients. He is also active in giving check-ups and talks about general health in schools and community centres.
His interest in physiotherapy began in secondary school where he learned first aid with the Red Cross and did voluntary work in hospitals. He decided not to pursue a career in medicine for very practical reasons. "In physiotherapy, there are more chances to communicate with people and you can avoid studying biochemistry!" he laughs. "Doctors may spend only a few minutes with each patient but we conduct longer sessions and can really get to know people as individuals."
"There is a double satisfaction in helping patients as well as seeing the business grow "
Mr Lam spent his school and university years in Australia and completed his degree in physiotherapy in 1995. Returning to Hong Kong, he began his career at the Hospital Authority's (HA) MacLehose Medical Rehabilitation Centre. After five years, though, he was looking for new challenges and established a private practice in partnership with colleagues.
Since being his own boss, Mr Lam has had to deal with some changes. "The workload is much heavier and so are the financial burdens, " he says. "We have to do more to promote the profession and attract clients but there is a double satisfaction in helping patients as well as seeing the business grow."
In general terms, he feels that the acceptance of physiotherapy and its techniques still needs to be advanced in Hong Kong. "Australians, for example, are more proactive in taking advice," he says, "Hong Kong people, in contrast, are rather passive. They rely heavily on doctors or physiotherapists to solve their problems and sometimes expect a cure without even following instructions or exercise regimes that are recommended."
A physiotherapist should have an outgoing personality and be observant enough to spot any minor changes in a client's condition. Mr Lam also emphasises that the senses must be well attuned for daily work. "We use our mouths to ask questions, the eyes to observe and the hands to assess problems and provide treatments," he explains. "The ears are for listening to what patients have to say but, equally important, is intuition so we can really understand what the cause of a problem may be."
Currently, only the Polytechnic University offers a Bachelor's degree in physiotherapy in Hong Kong. All graduates must then undertake one year's supervised practice so as to become a registered physiotherapist. This is the basic requirement for anyone choosing to work independently.
Traditionally, most physiotherapy graduates took a first job with the HA but fewer such openings are now available. In 2002, only 22 of the 134 graduates in Hong Kong joined the HA, with others entering the private sector, joining non-profit-making organisations or working overseas.
As awareness of physiotherapy continues to grow, Mr Lam believes that demand will also increase. He estimates only about 1,000 current practitioners are serving the local community. In offering advice for fresh graduates, he suggests considering opportunities outside the HA, such as in private medical groups or homes for the elderly. Newcomers should, however, be prepared for the significant difference in starting salaries between the public and private sectors.
The physiotherapy profession is largely undeveloped in mainland China, according to Mr Lam. There may, though, be a few opportunities for Hong Kong physiotherapists to work for well-established medical groups or to provide training for doctors and medical technicians in mainland hospitals.
Mr Lam stresses the importance for any type of medical professional in Hong Kong of checking into the mutual recognition of qualifications by the relevant authorities before deciding on a move. Also, the challenges which result from working in a new environment with different language and culture should not be underestimated.