Healthy prospects in nursing
The rapid expansion of private healthcare provision in Hong Kong has unsurprisingly led to a growing local demand for nursing staff. However, the expectations placed on these professionals have also increased.
'These days, we don't just want nurses to possess strong theoretical knowledge, we also want them to be critical and innovative thinkers, have good interpersonal skills and have the knowledge to conduct research,' says Dr Susan Chow Ka-yee, assistant professor and programme leader for the master's of nursing at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU).
Based on the American model, the master's of nursing is jointly run by PolyU and the Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital (HKSH). Launched in 2008, the master's is a one of a kind in Southeast Asia.
Chow explains that applicants for enrolment can have any degree from a recognised university, and must be able to speak and write Cantonese and English.
'People come from all walks of life - some of them [studied or worked in] business, science, the Chinese or Japanese languages, counselling and hotel management,' says Chow.
'The majority of the students have one or two years' work experience, while a few have more than 10 years' experience, and others still are fresh graduates. They join the programme because they want to change their lives and make a difference,' she adds.
Final-year nursing student Julie Wong Kwan-sau took up computer science in New York. After three years of working in IT, she finished an associate degree in nursing in the United States. She says she was motivated to apply to the master's programme in Hong Kong because she likes helping people and making a difference to people's lives, even if only in a small way.
'I want a career that not only gives me financial stability, but also offers the opportunity to be a positive influence on other people,' Wong says.
Catherine Chan Wing-sung, a first-year student on the master's programme, completed an undergraduate degree in fashion and textiles. But Chan found that after a year of working in this industry, her 'personality fits [better] with healthcare and nursing, than in back office research.'
The nursing master's is a full-time programme, and includes a 1,800-hour clinical practicum. To meet the Nursing Council of Hong Kong's competence requirements, all subjects are compulsory.
'We have small class sizes on the programme, which means that we have better interaction with students,' says Chow. 'We focus more on evidence-based nursing, and we equip students with strong research knowledge.'
Most of the practical portion of the course takes place at the HKSH. Manbo Man Bo-lin is the director of nursing services there and was key to the establishment and development of the master of nursing programme.
'Students come over [to HKSH] in their first and second years for part of their theory and classroom work,' says Man. 'But most importantly, the students spend a total of 1,400 hours on clinical practicums in our hospital over the three year-programme.'
Their practical work at the hospital is continuously assessed, and students must pass in three key clinical areas: aseptic techniques or the prevention of infection during treatment; administration of medicine; and total patient care.
Students may be involved in the treatment of seriously injured or distressed patients during their practicums, but are never left to do this alone. 'They always have a clinical instructor or mentor with them,' says Man.
Wong and Chan both cite the instance of serious illness within their own families as one of the inspirations for their career changes. Other students have their own reasons. 'Staff and patients [of the hospital] have found [students to be] very mature,' says Man. 'Their communication skills are good and the patients can see that they empathise with them.'
Chan and her classmates have found that working with patients presents a new range of challenges, compared with the ones that their classroom studies pose.
'When you actually have contact with someone, it is a totally different thing. You need to communicate with patients and their families,' she says, adding that the approach must suit each patient.
Wong says that time management has been her greatest challenge. 'This is a compact programme to which I have had to devote a lot of time,' she says.
Although a master's is required for those aiming to reach a managerial level in nursing, Chow points out that those taking the qualification will be junior nurses upon graduation. 'They will need to work for three years and gain experience before they will be eligible for promotion,' she says.
Chan and Wong, however, have other goals. 'I would like to advance in my career and specialise in diabetes care or some other specialism, after obtaining experience through working in general wards,' says Wong.
Meanwhile, Chan says that after gaining experience as a nurse in a hospital, she would like to work for a voluntary organisation. 'I'd like to work for Oxfam or Unicef in other countries, with children or elderly people,' she says.
The fees for the three-year master's of nursing are almost HK$250,000. HKSH, however, provides both scholarships and financial assistance for students.
'All students enrolling on the programme with a grade point average (GPA) score of over 2.5 qualify for an annual scholarship of a total of HK$30,000,' Man says. 'After the first year, students in the top five of their class, and with a GPA of 3.5 or above, are entitled to an additional HK$55,000 a year.'
The hospital will also offer students who have had their financial difficulties assessed - and who have a GPA score of 3.0 or above - a bursary of HK$246,000 to cover their fees for the course.
In addition, there is the possibility of part-time paid work at the hospital.
Chow says that although the remuneration for nurses is very competitive, anyone thinking of applying should ask themselves if they really want to be a nurse and if they truly wish to help sick people.