Academics help extend frontiers of medicine

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2007, 12:00am

Three new first-of-their-kind postgraduate programmes embrace a broad spectrum of topics and point to new directions in health-care education

Gone are the days when the health-care industry focused solely on medical knowledge. The frontiers of modern health care are widening to include a broad spectrum of professionals from diverse backgrounds, according to Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Three postgraduate programmes offered by the university's Faculty of Health and Social Sciences reflect the broad scope of modern health care: master of science in health informatics, master of science in health care (infection control), and doctor of health science.

According to the university, each programme is the first of its kind in Hong Kong.

'We are aiming at transforming data into knowledge,' said Joanne Chung Wai-yee, associate head (research) of the school of nursing and programme leader of the master of science in health informatics.

'In the long term, we hope to offer a new knowledge platform to alter the direction of local health care.'

Since the late 1980s, Hong Kong's health-care sector has recognised the need to make technological advances.

In the years that followed, health informatics progressed with the development of related information technology systems, but each was too specialised to benefit the sector as a whole.

A comprehensive health-care record to ensure zero data loss is the ultimate goal of the health informatics programme.

Professor Chung said that students following the programmes were exposed to a variety of subjects. These included data mining and data warehouse applications, and applied biosignal processing, which helped convert data into knowledge.

Professor Chung cited patients' records as examples. She said that although they were handwritten, a different picture would become available with the aid of health informatics.

'By means of data mining into numerous patients' records, we can come to realise a new disease pattern,' Professor Chung said, adding that such information proved useful during the Sars outbreak.

Such knowledge could serve as a reference for frontline medical personnel, she said. On the management front, this knowledge could provide better calculation of human resources for bedside medical care.

Professor Chung said that health informatics helped to create a more efficient health-care environment and less error in data processing, and facilitate the formulation of the government's health-care policy.

Pursuing progress in health-care services does not rest with IT applications at PolyU. Addressing key issues in this field is on the agenda, too.

The severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic in Hong Kong in 2003 gave rise to the need to plan the Master of Science in Health Care (infection control), the university said.

Danny Gohel, associate professor and associate head (administration) of the faculty's department of health technology and informatics, and programme leader of the Master of Science in Health Care (infection control), said the Sars outbreak had revealed gaps in knowledge about infection control.

Since then, the programme has been dedicated to equipping students with related practices, but Dr Gohel said infection control might go further.

'The Sars episode showed the relevance of a building environment to disease,' he said. 'Infection control involves a wider scope of knowledge than we imagined.'

He said the threat of avian flu drew attention to how ventilation of public transport should be managed so that diseases could be neutralised before they reached humans. And this was one of the major concerns of infection control, too.

The programme also inspires students to generate interesting ideas for their research work. One student proposal was about ways to sterilise the air. Another asked what factors were critical to maximise the effectiveness of N95 surgical masks.

Dr Gohel expected the programme to make students experts in infection control practice. 'Brainstorming when infectious diseases arise is too late. We need our students to be ready and step up to take action,' he said.

Health-care professionals as troubleshooters are required to consider their mission as a lifelong process, and that is the focus of the doctor of health science programme.

Daniel Chow Hung-kay, associate head of the department of health technology and informatics and programme leader of the doctor of health science, said: 'We emphasise quality research among our students.'

Professor Chow said the programme aimed to motivate students to think about what health science issues they would like to specialise in, combine study and work, and move forward for the long-term development of health care.

The programme is designed to prepare health-care professionals for leadership roles.

Professor Chow said students did not find their professions a hindrance to obtaining a doctorate degree but rather a motivation in their research projects. He said that students were interested in enriching their professional work and developing a wide range of research topics. 'One of my students is studying the possibility of applying physiotherapy in accident and emergency units of hospitals to relieve pressure on medical staff from the heavy admission of patients,' he said.

Conventional thinking is that postgraduate programmes for health-care professionals are limited to students from medical or nursing backgrounds. Increasingly, however, more people from various disciplines were joining the health-care sector.

The two health-care postgraduate programmes offered by PolyU extend the definition of practitioner.

Students from disciplines such as engineering or IT are eligible to apply for the Master of Science in Health Informatics.

Even though its doctorate programme places more emphasis on health-related disciplines, the student profiles are diverse and include occupational therapists, physiotherapists, nurses, radiographers, prostheticians and orthodontists, and physicians.

Another factor contributing to this diversity stems from the multidisciplinary approach of instruction. The health informatics programme will include elements from the university's logistics and computing departments, while building services engineering, applied mathematics and even textiles and clothing are topics the infection control programme will touch on.