The stresses and strains of urban living create pressures which, almost inevitably, can have an impact on health. The symptoms and underlying causes, though, are not always physical. They may arise more directly from an individual's mental well-being and affect their overall behaviour. If so, it is vital to have the chance to consult a trained psychiatrist with the ability to provide the necessary treatment and professional support.
"Unlike medical practitioners who deal with the physical well-being of patients, in the field of psychiatry we treat the mental health of patients and their families," says Dr Richard Fung, a specialist psychiatrist at the Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital. "When the patient recovers, we try hard to minimise the chance of relapse which, hopefully, reduces any negative impact the person and his family might have."
Dr Fung began his career by obtaining a Bachelor's degree in medicine and surgery from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 1993. He later added further medical qualifications by becoming a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK in 2001 and successfully qualifying as a fellow of the Hong Kong College of Psychiatrists in 2004. Along the way, he has built up wide-ranging experience in the diverse branches of adult, old age, child and adolescent, community and forensic psychiatry through working at a number of hospitals in Hong Kong.
"You have to be patient, understanding and have a real interest in helping people with their mental problems"
Reflecting on what is needed to be a successful psychiatrist, Dr Fung identifies certain factors. "Much emphasis is placed on the practitioner's character and, of course, their qualifications," he explains. "However, you must also be a good listener so that your patients are able to share their feelings, emotions and problems with you. You have to be patient, understanding and have a real interest in helping people with their mental problems."
He adds that the key is to remain neutral and calm inside so that the practitioner is not emotionally disturbed or affected by their patient's mental problems.
In his clinical work, Dr Fung attends to both in-patients and outpatients in hospital and conducts outreach consultations at residential facilities. He stresses the importance of community psychiatry as it marks a global trend and he is encouraged to see the introduction of more rehabilitation programmes in Hong Kong.
"Being in a mental hospital is not easy but, with the introduction of various rehabilitation programmes in our community, it is easier for patients to accept treatment. It is also easier on the family as there is better treatment compliance and less chance of relapse," he explains.
A combination of pharmacological and psychological treatments are generally used and, often, clinical psychologists and social workers are called in when social issues such as unemployment or marital problems may be a contributory cause of illness. Despite the difficult issues he has to deal with on a daily basis, Dr Fung remains consistently upbeat about his job. "The rewards of psychiatric training are many but, most of all, it is the satisfaction of helping patients recover and become active members of society once again," he notes.
As the reported cases of socio-economic and mental problems are increasing in Hong Kong, there is a growing demand for psychiatrists and much to keep those already in the field fully occupied. "Cases in Hong Kong are on the rise as there is more awareness of psychological problems," Dr Fung confirms. He puts this down, in part, to changes in society when people have secured the basics for survival such as food and shelter and have more time to think about other issues affecting their lives.
"With advanced education, the public are becoming more self-aware and more cautious about the possibility of psychological problems within their family," he says.
So what provides the professional inspiration for Dr Fung? "I regard my job as a lifetime commitment to my patients and I treat them like family members," he says. "Only then can I share and solve their psychological problems."
The mainland offers numerous opportunities for psychiatrists though there are a few hurdles they need to cross before taking up a position in China.
"There are quite a few considerations," says Dr Fung. "One is the language since, in order to apply for a licence to practise on the mainland, you must take the written registration exams in simplified Chinese. Another is that salaries can be considerably lower."
He also adds that the specific local regulations about what practitioners entering the mainland can do are not always clear and can change at short notice. In general, it is easier to find work with a private or public hospital rather than by setting up one's own clinic.