For many in healthcare, it's more than just a job - it's a calling
This week, we focus on the healthcare sector, which is increasingly vital to Singapore as its population ages.
Amid the slowing economy and uncertain job market, many Singaporeans have said they are unsure of where to start looking for opportunities in several growth industries. To that end, TODAY has launched an eight-part weekly series that looks at the openings available, the prospects and how workers can equip themselves with the skills for these positions. In the previous instalments, we looked at the logistics, food manufacturing, hotel, early childhood and information and communications technology industries.
This week, in the sixth part of the series, we focus on the healthcare sector, which is increasingly vital to Singapore as its population ages. For healthcare professionals, what they do is more than a job – it is a calling and despite the challenges they face, they tell TODAY that the sense of satisfaction derived from making a difference in patients’ lives is something that money cannot buy.
SINGAPORE — Her aunt’s death moved her to pursue nursing as a future career. But, as a first-year nursing student at Nanyang Polytechnic, Ms Fadillah Mokhtar was on the verge of giving up her dream just a few days into her hospital attachment.
She had to change an elderly patient’s diapers filled with faeces and clean him up afterwards. This was not what she expected; she thought nurses merely give medication and change dressings on wounds. This was not the job for her, she told herself.
But it all changed when one day, the patient, who was in his 70s, said sorry to her for taking the trouble to clean him up.
“I felt guilty and I realised that part of caring for a patient means you have to make sure he or she is comfortable at all times — even if it means you have to get your hands dirty and clean faeces or clear urine bags,” said Ms Fadillah, 30, who has been a nurse for almost a decade.
She is now a staff nurse at the National University Hospital’s (NUH) critical care department. “I love my job and have never thought of quitting ever since. Seeing patients regain their health gives me a great satisfaction,” said Ms Fadillah.
Her aunt had cared for her when she was a child because her parents were busy working. After all that her aunt had done for her, Ms Fadillah — who was then 15 — felt helpless and incapable of looking after her stricken aunt. To her, nursing patients back to health in her current job is a way of making up for the lost opportunity.
Ms Fadillah’s motivation is not uncommon in the healthcare sector, where many were moved by episodes in their lives that made them realise the importance of “angels in white” — as healthcare professionals are known — and their meaningful contributions.
Inspired by an occupational therapist who helped her mother get back on her feet after she underwent a total hip replacement surgery following a fall, Ms Stella Teng left the information technology sector and signed up for the Professional Conversion Programme (PCP) for Occupational Therapists in 2010.
She graduated with a degree in the discipline four years later, and joined the healthcare sector — never mind that it meant a 70-per-cent pay cut compared to her previous job as an IT manager.
Ms Teng had, in fact, considered joining the healthcare sector when she was in junior college but by her own admission, she was lured by the prospect of higher salary and joined the IT industry instead.
“I was crunching numbers all day and helping to add to the profit margin. I realised my job was not meaningful,” said Ms Teng, 53.
Now, as an occupational therapist at Jurong Community Hospital, “you get this sense of fulfilment that you played a huge part in helping patients regain their independence”, she said. “They can reintegrate back into society instead of ending up in a nursing home,” she added.
As its population ages, Singapore’s healthcare sector is rapidly expanding. In 2015, over 91,000 healthcare workers were employed in various facilities including primary, acute and community care setting.
Last October, the Ministry of Health (MOH) announced that a projected 30,000 more healthcare workers are needed by 2020.
To attract Singaporeans to take up careers in the sector, various initiatives have been put in place over the years, which include scholarships and training grants, as well as improving salaries and expanding career pathways. But as healthcare professionals would attest to, it is more than a job — it is a calling. While some may think they have the passion for it, not everyone has what it takes considering the trying — and at times, gory — situations that healthcare workers have to deal with.
Ms Teng recalled that apart from herself, out of the five other participants who went through the PCP together with her, only one went on to become an occupational therapist.
“After they went for the clinical attachments, they know what the job entails, and realised they’re not cut out for it,” said Ms Teng.
For Mr Mohd Firdaus Mohd Salleh, he faced a test just few weeks into his job as a staff nurse at Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s (TTSH) surgical department.
“There was a patient who got injured after a motorbike accident and the doctor asked me to clean the wound. It was a pretty gory scene because bones were sticking out of his leg,” said Mr Mohd Firdaus, 34.
But he soon grew accustomed to such situations, a far cry from his experience as a deployment officer at SIA Engineering.
While it was “nerve wrecking” at first, Mr Mohd Firdaus said he has never doubted his decision to join the profession. He has been working as nurse for six years, after graduating from the PCP for Registered Nurses.
“I know that this was the right move because I get the joy of helping other people,” said the father of three. “The motivation is always there. I look forward going to work the next day, to help another person.”
Similarly, Ms Teng said she derives a deep sense of satisfaction from the job. She cited a “very stubborn” patient, who was in his 70s and had undergone a total knee replacement. The patient refused therapy, baulking at Ms Teng’s persuasion and even hurling vulgarities at her.
But her perseverance paid off eventually. “It took three weeks to finally get him to agree to do therapy, but it was worth it,” she said with a smile.
DIFFERENT ROLES, SAME OBJECTIVE
To meet the growing needs of an ageing population, an array of jobs require filling in the healthcare industry. Even for those who are not on the frontline, they make a difference in patients’ lives.
TTSH advance care planning coordinator Roland Chang recalled a case of an elderly couple where the husband had mild dementia and the wife had fractured her shoulder after a fall. The wife was worried about care arrangements for her husband if she could no longer look after him, and they wanted to sign up for advance care planning. As part of his job, Mr Chang advises patients on the type of care they would prefer if they were to become physically or mentally incapacitated to make healthcare decisions in the future.
Mr Chang, 47, said: “I’ve seen how patients feel relieved and reassured knowing their medical needs are taken care of. This is the satisfaction that I get even though I only played a small role.”
Over at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, operations executive Natarie Low and her colleagues recently created a map for patients and family members to help them find their way around the hospital. This was after she observed that some were unsure of where to go when they arrived at the hospital.
“I saw that a number of patients kept coming up to my colleagues asking for directions,’” said Ms Low, 25, who can be seen patrolling the hospital wards regularly to assess whether there is enough manpower or to troubleshoot problems such as faulty computers.
Despite graduating with a science degree from the National University of Singapore, Ms Low was not keen on being a lab researcher. As she has always been curious as to what goes on behind the scenes at hospitals, she did not have to think twice when she was offered the job at Mount Elizabeth Hospital.
Ms Shailaja Suresh Kumar, the hospital’s assistant vice-president for operations, said her team comprises less than 10 employees and they are looking to hire more, as the number of patients increase. Last year, the hospital admitted 24,000 patients, 7 per cent more than 2015.
Ms Low said: “The things that we do might seem minor, but indirectly, we are making sure that delivery of care to patients run smoothly. For those keen to enter healthcare, don’t restrict yourself to traditional roles. It is not just nurses and doctors who play a role in delivering quality care.”
While low salaries were a common bugbear in the industry, the Government has taken steps to raise the salaries of doctors and nurses in the public sector in recent years.
For example, the Home Nursing Foundation (HNF), which currently employs 87 full-time staff, has increased the salaries of its nurses by up to 20 per cent in the last three years, its chief executive Karen Lee said.
“We understand that while people join and stay for the passion, there are (practical issues) to be dealt with including feeding their children and paying off mortgages,” she added.
For healthcare workers, there is no doubt where their motivation lies. Ms Fadillah noted that many people may be unaware that nurses sometimes forego their meal breaks and work beyond their shift hours to care for patients. But what makes the job rewarding is seeing patients recover, she said.
Ms Fadillah recounted an example of how a patient was taken off a ventilator as she could breathe on her own. “It is a small progress but it puts a smile on my face because it shows that I have done something right for the patient. And for healthcare workers, all we want to see is that we’ve made a difference in their lives.”
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