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Going the extra mile

IN RURAL Australia, physiotherapy clinics sometimes double up as a gym.

Ms Mary Ann Tay (above), 30, a physiotherapist at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), experienced this first-hand during an attachment programme at a community hospital in Canowindra, a small town about 300km away from Sydney.

“Due to the rural setting and the lack of accessible gyms in the community, the physiotherapy clinic doubled up as a health centre where people could come in to use the gym for a small fee,” she says.

But beyond the wider reach of the community hospital’s physiotherapy clinic, Ms Tay, who was pursuing her degree in physiotherapy in Sydney at that time, was struck by the close bonds between the community nurses and patients.

“The nurses knew all their patients and their addresses and phone numbers by memory. Each nurse was a friend to the patients, making weekly visits to check on their medication and how they were coping,” she recalls.

Today, Ms Tay’s role also involves helping her patients regain their mobility and independence when making home visits, regardless of where they live.

“Their homes range from private houses to one-room flats. I even had a patient who lived at a stairwell outside a relative’s home,” she says.

Making home visits are part of her role as a physiotherapist at TTSH’s transitional care service to support patients who have just been discharged from the hospital by teaching them and their caregivers how to do exercises for the benefit of their health.

Under its Community Health Engagement Programme, Ms Tay conducts exercise sessions for the elderly at Senior Activity Centres (SACs) to improve their strength and balance, which can help prevent falls.

She also trains the SAC staff to conduct such exercises for older people safely and effectively.

Always on the move

Ms Tay was initially drawn to how physiotherapists treat sporting injuries.

She eventually realised that she enjoyed working with older people, and that led her to work for the community and geriatric teams.

Her work is never mundane as she gets to help and work with different people.

Her curiosity to learn and the desire to help people improve their health and lives had spurred her to take up the Health Science Scholarship — now known as Healthcare Merit Scholarship — after she earned a diploma in physiotherapy at Nanyang Polytechnic.

“The scholarship covered monthly allowances, air tickets, insurance and an allowance for warm clothes and books. The amount was enough to cover living expenses and, if you are prudent of your finances, you might be able to squeeze in a bit of travelling,” she says.

Engaging patients

While Ms Tay’s varied duties may come as a boon to those who shun desk-bound jobs, she says that interacting with people with different personalities can be a challenge.

“Some patients do not see that their health can be improved if they change their lifestyle. These patients are not ready for change, and with little social support, it is very challenging to help them,” she explains.

Ms Tay and her team spend a lot of time and effort engaging these patients to gain their trust, with varying degrees of success.

“Sometimes, we are successful, and they open up to us and take some advice. But other times, we are not able to convince them to change their lifestyles and improve the management of their health,” she says.

Training staff from the SACs to become community exercise leaders has also been challenging as they come from different backgrounds.

Adds Ms Tay: “Some have social work backgrounds while others may be healthcare attendants, and the level of fitness varies.”

“Sometimes, I need to set aside more time for slower learners to impart the knowledge and skills to them on a one-to-one basis.”

“But I think as long as they are keen to learn, and use these skills to help the older people in their exercises, then the extra time put into it is worthwhile.”