Rewarding occupation

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 January, 2008, 12:00am

World body's president Kit Sinclair is a leader in her profession and continues to play vital role in Hong Kong

When Kit Sinclair, the first Hong Kong resident and US-born person to be elected president of the 130,000-member World Federation of Occupational Therapists (WFOT), took a short break in Hong Kong nearly 40 years ago, little did she anticipate the holiday would have a lasting impact on her career. It played an integral role in promoting the level of knowledge and benefits of occupational therapy (OT) in Hong Kong and beyond.

In addition to being a founding faculty member of the three-year occupational therapy honours degree programme at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), over the years Professor Sinclair has been a leader in expanding occupational therapy training and education in the mainland.

Her dedication to outreach programmes has won accolades from the mainland medical profession and awards from Rotary International, which has given her a Fellowship and an International Service Award for her dedication to developing rehabilitation therapy. The professor said her greatest source of pride was seeing those she had taught develop their careers to make a real difference to the communities they worked in. 'Part of the pleasure of teaching is seeing others using motivation and the skills they acquire to develop innovative solutions that make a real difference to people's lives,' she said.

As a fresh occupational therapist graduate from Washington University in St Louis, the professor joined the US Peace Corps and spent two years in rural South Korea, working in orphanages and clinics. She came to Hong Kong in 1969 for a short sojourn, but decided to stay and worked in children's hospitals, schools and for the then Medical and Health Department of the Hong Kong government, before joining the department of rehabilitation sciences at the then Hong Kong Polytechnic in 1978 - the same year the honours degree programme was launched.

'In those early days there were probably less than 30 trained occupational therapists, mostly foreigners, working in Hong Kong. I was finding my feet in a health care system that was very hospital based, but Hong Kong was changing and people were becoming more demanding regarding health services, which helped to increase the stature of occupational therapy,' she said. By moving from a hands-on environment into academia, Professor Sinclair felt that she could contribute more to the profession. She said validation of her move was rewarded when the first graduates began developing jobs and services relevant to Hong Kong people's needs.

Hong Kong has about 1,200 locally trained occupational therapists. Since the PolyU programme was launched in the late 1970s, more than 12,000 students have graduated from the curriculum. Professor Sinclair has helped train nearly every one.

The professor also played a key role in setting up the Hong Kong Association of Occupational Therapists in 1979. Today, local occupational therapists work in a range of settings, including hospitals, health centres, homes, workplaces, schools, reform institutions and housing for the elderly.

'When I look back to when I joined the PolyU's infant rehabilitation department, I find it hard to believe the progress we have made,' said Professor Sinclair, who holds a master's degree in education from Surrey University in England and was awarded her PhD doctorate for her work on clinical reasoning.

Typical of unsung heroes that contribute much to society but seek little personal recognition, Professor Sinclair said that nearly everything that she had achieved was down to team effort and the love of her family.

'I am immensely proud of the young men and women who graduate from the PolyU and for the enormous contribution they make to our society and the profession. They are the equal of any professionals in the world,' said Professor Sinclair who, in addition to the mainland government and medical organisations, regularly provides voluntary consultation to professional associations and education programmes in Venezuela, Chile, Italy, Austria, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Kenya, South Africa, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand. 'I try to offer advice gained from Hong Kong and internationally so others can build from these experiences,' she said.

As head of the WFOT, Professor Sinclair was instrumental in forming a team of volunteers and support workers that provided OT to survivors of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. 'From our experience of working with victims of the tsunami we have developed far better disaster response programmes and a proliferation of offshoot programmes,' she said.

Unlike physiotherapy, which is designed to heal the body, OT helps people learn to take care of themselves when a health problem limits activity. For example, washing, dressing, eating, preparing meals and managing personal business are taken for granted by most people. These tasks, called activities of daily living, teach a person how to do these tasks alone, or with the help of special devices or other people.

Professor Sinclair said OT could help people become more active and willing to take care of themselves. 'A person who has an injury, or illness, that makes it difficult to do activities can feel very helpless and become depressed. When this happens, the person can quit trying to recover. OT helps people experience success and restore dignity and independence,' she said.

Professor Sinclair has travelled the world to deliver cross-border humanitarian presentations that increase awareness and help to foster a better understanding of the need and importance of OT. A main focus is in the development of OT worldwide, human rights for occupational participation and the advancement of occupational therapy in community based rehabilitation. 'We all have the same goal and that is to get a person functioning at their highest potential. The focus of the occupational therapist is occupations, everything you occupy your daily life doing, the physical therapist's focus is on mobility,' said the professor.

Married to Hong Kong journalist, the late Kevin Sinclair, for 38 years, Professor Sinclair managed to juggle her time between being a mother and a teaching professional through careful time management.

'There was so much going on when my children were small but very much in the way that busy people in Hong Kong operate. I tried to manage my time and made the most of the time with my family whenever I could.'

She said occupational therapists needed a broad education that equipped them with the skills and knowledge to work collaboratively with individuals and groups of people who had different body impairments. Anyone interested in a career in OT could benefit from studying biology, chemistry, physics, anatomy and physiology, statistics, psychology and social sciences.

Professor Sinclair said the career prospects for OTs remained promising as an ageing population and increasingly demanding society would call upon the services of OTs in the future. As for Professor Sinclair, who has been featured in a book recognising people who have made a positive difference to the Hong Kong community, the journey continues. 'There are plenty of new ways we can continue to advance OT to help others,' said the educator and community focused leader.

Work in progress

Arrived in Hong Kong nearly 40 years ago after taking a break from the US Peace Corps while working as a volunteer in South Korean orphanages and clinics

Worked in children's hospitals, schools and for the then Medical and Health Department before joining the department of rehabilitation sciences at the Hong Kong Polytechnic in 1978

Was instrumental in setting up and teaching Hong Kong's first occupational therapy honours degree programme

First Hong Kong resident to be elected as president of the 130,000-member World Federation of Occupational Therapists

Her dedication to outreach programmes has won accolades from the mainland medical profession and awards from Rotary International, which has given her a Fellowship and an International Service Award for her dedication to developing rehabilitation therapy

Stepping Up

Senior occupational therapist

HK$47,485 to HK$59,580

Six years up

Occupational therapist I

HK$31,835-HK$47,485

Four to five years

Occupational therapist II

HK$18,840-HK$30,445

Entry level position

Source: Hospital Authority