Twenty-five years after it was established, the Department of Rehabilitation Services at Hong Kong Polytechnic University is receiving recognition from a panel of experts from North America who commend its programme. The department's first intake, in 1978, comprised 40 students who enrolled in the occupational therapy and physiotherapy class. The department has been gradually expanding since then. 'We now have 110 full-time staff who are involved in teaching, conducting research in laboratories, manning an East-meets-West centre, and also serving in our clinic, which is open to the public,' said Professor Christina Hui-Chan Wan-ying, chair and head of the department of rehabilitation services. The department offers academic programmes for students at undergraduate, postgraduate and doctorate levels, and has produced scholars and professionals for Hong Kong and China. 'Three of our PhD graduates are heading rehabilitation science departments in leading mainland universities,' Professor Hui-Chan said. The department has also been working closely with the mainland Bureau of Health on the long-term development of rehabilitation services. Statistics show that there are about 60 million disabled people in China, evidence of the urgent need for rehabilitation professionals. Preparations for the 2008 Olympics and the presence of an increasing number of international businesses in China have heightened the need to upgrade rehabilitation standards in the mainland. 'When General Motors first established its plant in Shanghai, a family member of a senior executive suffered a stroke and required rehabilitation services. They asked us for our professional help,' Professor Hui-Chan said. The department plans to launch a 'train-the-trainer' programme for China's healthcare professionals next year. 'The trainees are doctors, nurses and academics who have an extensive clinical background.' However, despite the department's best efforts, Hong Kong is still no better off in terms of the number of professionals it is producing. 'We are one of the world's top countries in terms of standard of living, but we probably have the lowest ratio of physical therapists to population,' Professor Hui-Chan said. 'In the United States, the ratio is four physical therapists per 10,000 people. In Europe, the ratio is 12 per 10,000, but Hong Kong it is only 1.2 per 10,000.' Physical therapists are healthcare professionals trained to help patients overcome their disabilities. Their duties range from treating people who have suffered strokes to athletes with sports injuries and workers with back injuries. 'We help them to regain their physical strength and mobility so that they can return to their normal life,' she said. 'In the US, physical therapists enjoy a greater recognition and respect for the work they do. They complement the work of surgeons in helping patients to recover. Surgeons can do only half the job. Without proper rehabilitation services, the patient suffers.' When she was director of the School of Physical and Occupational Therapy at McGill University in Canada in the 1980s, Professor Hui-Chan noted the school had difficulty attracting the best students. 'I believe that is rooted in awareness of the profession. This is a great and rewarding profession that can make a positive influence on the quality of people's lives.' In North America, the profession is rated among the top 10 occupations, and in Australia it is the fourth most respected profession. Graduates can choose to work in hospitals or private clinics, and even in insurance companies. 'We have graduates working as case managers for insurance companies that require their professional knowledge in assessing a claimant's disability levels,' Professor Hui-Chan said. 'There is also great demand from private clinics.' Proof of the huge demand for rehabilitation therapists lies in the fact that 95 per cent of physical therapy services are insured. Companies are willing to pay for the treatments in order to get their employees back to work. Although the demand for the expertise and the support services are there, the Polytechnic's rehabilitation department is in discussion with the government about a possible reduction in student intake over the coming years. 'I sincerely hope the government will not make a mistake in its manpower planning, as the city's health sector cannot afford it,' Professor Hui-Chan said. 'In view of an ageing population, we cannot produce fewer graduates. This would be detrimental to the entire community. As a world-class city, we must keep a leading position in physical therapy in the region.'