By Sherry Tan and Brandon Loy
Tang Wei Kiat is currently a pediatric Occupational Therapist and Therapy Team Lead at NTUC First Campus, overseeing a team of Occupational Therapists, Speech and Language Therapists, Educational and Clinical Psychologists, with years of experience working at a psychiatric hospital. He graduated with First Class Honours in B.Sc. Occupational Therapy from the University of Southampton. In this article, he shares about his experiences as a pediatric Occupational Therapist, his passion for working with children and sharing the importance of taking care of one’s mental health.
I am an occupational therapist who works in pre-schools, so I go to different preschools to see children with developmental and learning needs.
On a typical day, I will go to the preschool and see a child for therapy and our goal is to improve the child’s ability to participate better in the classroom (e.g. attention, handwriting, social skills, motor skills, etc.). After the therapy session, I will usually observe the child in the classroom and see if they have generalised the skills I taught them in the classroom, and if they need further support, I will work with the school teachers.
I often have regular discussions with the school teachers because they are our biggest partner. Ultimately I go there once a week while the teachers are with the children from Mondays to Fridays. It is important to work as a team to provide holistic support for these children in the classroom.
I never knew about Occupational Therapy until I finished ‘A’ Levels. One of the biggest misconceptions that people have is equating Occupational Therapy to Physiotherapy.
Many think Occupational Therapy has to do with occupations in terms of jobs, but actually that is not entirely true— it is more than that. The word ‘occupation’ in Occupational Therapy refers to the things one does in daily life such as brushing your teeth, tying your hair, writing in the classroom (if we are talking about a student), interaction with peers (if we are concerned with a preschooler). It is true that some OTs work in work rehabilitation but it goes beyond that.
Anything that is a result of a medical injury, a developmental disability, a mental illness which affects how you function in daily life— Occupational Therapy will be there to help. The people who receive Occupational Therapy can range from infants to elderly.
To be frank, it did not come to my mind until I finished ‘A’ Levels because back then, my only thought was to pursue medicine in National University of Singapore (NUS). Unfortunately, I did not make the cut. I tried applying overseas, and was accepted into medical school but it would be a huge financial burden for my family. As a result, I started exploring other career options that would still allow me to work in the healthcare sector.
I discovered various other allied health professions and at the time, they were offering scholarships, just like now. The thing that struck me about Occupational Therapy was that it sees people holistically- it is not just about the medical aspect but also about psychological, social and environmental aspects. I was drawn to that- not looking at a person from just one point of view but from a myriad of perspectives.
You have to think about the kind of lifestyle you want. To some extent, I think that will help decide the career pathway you would like to have.
To be honest, there is no free lunch. The high paying jobs will require you to work long hours, the not-as-high paying but more meaningful jobs might require you to work very hard.
At the end of the day, you have to think about what kind of life you want to lead. Your lifestyle will manage your expectations on money which goes back to practicality.
For the most part of my career, I worked at a psychiatric hospital and I worked with persons with mental illness and also adults and children diagnosed with developmental disabilities and mental health issues. Working with these individuals and families is a journey not a sprint. As a professional, I see myself as just a part of someone’s long journey. If you expect yourself to make a huge impact immediately, I think it is not quite possible realistically because we are dealing with human beings, lives, and we take a long term perspective.
I think what is helpful is that you see yourself as part of their journey and that part of their journey is important because no matter what you do, you do it with heart and professionalism and you make a small difference. Perhaps, at that point, you do not see a big change in the people you work with but that is fine as you set up the building blocks for them which can later be added upon by someone else.
When I work with children, I often like to use this analogy: we are planting a seed in the soil and then, I will water it a little and they start germinating and someone else who crosses their paths will water it a little more and they eventually grow into a full-grown plant which blossoms. Although we may only play a small part in their journey, the small parts are building blocks for success in the long term.
I have a biased view because I have always wanted to work with children. When I started the course in university, I have always wanted to work with children and I am a father of 2 young children as well.
Often my peers comment ‘Your job is great! You play with children every day!’ It is true that I am playing with the child but the playing is just what you see from the surface. Because beneath the play, are many clinical thought processes that are going through my mind to achieve the therapy goals for the child.
When the child feels happy during therapy and they enjoy it, the improvement and learning accelerates. They forget they are attending therapy and learning, so coming to see me becomes fun and they look forward to it.
When you work with children, you spend time working with parents as they are your biggest partner— you need to help them understand what you are doing and let them know you are working as a team with them to help their children. I think that is vital but I also understand how busy life in Singapore can be. I hope parents recognise the value of this partnership.
Yes, certainly. I think year after year in the Occupational Therapy degree course offered at Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT), the intake of students is increasing.
The issue of an ageing population is pressing in Singapore and I feel that as Occupational Therapists, we have a critical role to play in supporting the ageing population.
I may not work a lot with elderly but based on what I understand from conversations with my peers, ageing is not just about having a place to stay in and having someone to take care of you but about ageing with grace coupled with meaning. I believe this is where Occupational Therapy comes in, to facilitate conversations, analyse and interpret the kind of meaningful activities that elderly would want to continue pursuing. Hence, this is why you see programmes being rolled out across the government agencies to keep the elderly engaged.
This is a big question. I feel that tech is definitely going to play a big role and we need to think about how we can keep up with the advancement in tech which can help us do our jobs better.
For instance, since I work in pediatrics, I have been looking through apps that will aid in providing appropriate and timely suggestions to parents on some activities that they can do with their children as a way to facilitate their development.
As Occupational Therapists, we have the knowledge to provide the resources for development of useful applications.
I notice that many are thinking about the meaning in careers and I feel meaning in careers can be across all sectors, not just in healthcare.
I have a friend from university who is doing bio-engineering and he is currently working in a robotics company in Canada. He told me his biggest dream is to develop a robotic arm to help people who have lost their limbs. To me, that is exciting! With his engineering skills and my understanding about hands from Occupational Therapy, we can collaborate.
What is helpful for work in a profession where you deal with human beings, particularly in Occupational Therapy or in other medical fields, is really about having curiosity about human life. It is this curiosity that is driving me every day- trying to understand why a child is behaving in a certain way, what is going on in the family that is impacting a child and so on.
We have come a long way in understanding the human brain and human body but there is still so much that has yet to be discovered. That curiosity will keep someone moving forward for a long time in addition to their passion.
After all, passion will wax and wane because in reality, there will be children who will bring you smiles but there will also be challenges working with the parents, colleagues or the structure of the organisation. Such things have to be balanced along the way in the reality of working life.
In the healthcare profession, you may hear others talk about burnout (though not much as it is not often spoken about) because healthcare professionals give so much as they are of service to others. We are all human beings. We need validation- people giving us a pat on the back and showing appreciation.
In addition to curiosity and passion, one other quality would be humility. It is only when you are humble that you start to become curious instead of assuming you know everything about a person. Even if you may have worked with someone for a long time and you have the data from all the advanced machines, at the end of the day, they are still human beings. They change gradually, just like one’s mood or motivation, so having humility and curiosity will really help those who aspire to work in the field.
I previously worked in the mental health field and I think there is still a lot of stigma surrounding mental health issues. Although I feel that government agencies like the National Council of Social Services (NCSS) have done a great job in trying to de-stigmatise it, the stigma has not completely faded because it takes a long time to do so.
There are services provided but I think it is a matter of whether people want to step out and ask for help, from peers or even their superiors, having that relationship and understanding.
The key thing is how we can make a shift in such situations, starting on an individual level. We can start by focusing on one thing at a time— if you think that you are not feeling great, tell someone. Otherwise, there are hotlines you can call – one example is the National Care Hotline which was set up last year.
I think that it is already starting to happen because in my organisation, we have a ‘well-being day’ and you can just take a leave for your own mental well-being which I feel is a great move. I know many organisations are pushing for that as well.
However, simply one day will not make much of a difference because mental well-being is an everyday thing, not just in the workplace but also at home or even in daily interactions with other people. In order to facilitate change, one has to start on an individual level on a daily basis- reaching out to friends, colleagues and your loved ones.
It is important not to enter the field purely in the name of passion because like I previously mentioned, passion waxes and wanes. You can try volunteering and seeking out attachments. However, seeking out attachments is more challenging due to the COVID-19 situation but volunteering is still a good option!
You can look out for volunteering opportunities in the social services sector, elderly homes and you will meet some allied health professionals in those settings. When you are there, you can have a conversation with them and ask them about their experiences, be it positive or negative and their way of managing it. I often like to ask my seniors about what sustains and motivates them in the field they are working in so these are the kind of questions you can ask the other allied health professionals too. This allows you to gain insights and make an informed choice.
I do not think I am anywhere yet today, and I am still learning as it is a lifelong journey. I think what has been helpful for me is that there have been mentors that have helped me along the way. Help refers to mentors giving me opportunities because sometimes you can work really hard but without opportunities, there is no way you can demonstrate your hard work.
I am really grateful for my bosses, mentors and supportive colleagues because you are never an individual worker in the healthcare field. Only teamwork will help the clients as I believe that no profession has a monopoly about the knowledge and care of a patient. It is only when all of us come together, putting our hands and hearts together to help the patient, then the patient would have the best treatment and service.
I thought not going to medical school was the end of the world. However, I realised work in Occupational Therapy for the last ten years had given me a lot of meaning, it had really helped me understand that I could do this for a long time.
My dream initially when I wanted to be a doctor was to volunteer overseas to help people, similar to Doctors Without Borders. However, I realised as an Occupational Therapist I could do that as well. One of my dreams for retirement is to go to one of the nearby developing Southeast Asian countries to help children, with developmental/physical disabilities. I feel that I have the relevant skills to do this work now.
I realised I am not so far off from my dream when I was 17 or 18. Hence, I do not have any regrets.
To be honest, if you follow the Instagram account of Healthcare Scholarships, you would see many allied health professionals sharing their experiences there. I must say that Singapore has really done a lot of work to promote them.
I do not think there is much I would like to change. However, I would like to help more people understand the value Occupational Therapy brings to different sectors, including the healthcare, education and social services sectors. It also brings value to workplaces, in terms of mental wellbeing as well.
There are two things that motivate me.
Firstly, one would be a sense of satisfaction or a sense that you have done something meaningful whenever you see a smile on the faces of the children you have worked with. It is a great feeling when the children make small progress in their lives or when their parents tell me about their progress at home. Realising that I have made a small difference has motivated me to work in this line.
Secondly, curiosity has also motivated me. I realised that even though I have worked in this field for ten years, I feel that I still have a lot that I want to learn. It excites me that I can still keep learning to serve the children and their families the best.
I would still be an Occupational Therapist and in years to come continue to be a clinician working with children and their families. However, as allied health professionals, we have a duty to pass on our knowledge to the next generation and hope that they do better than we did. I feel that this is on the minds of all the OT educators and the seniors in the field. It is about pushing the field forward to enable the next generation to do better than us.
I hope that I will continue to mentor budding clinicians/professionals. We can build and develop the field together so that we continue to stay relevant and bring value to the clients and patients we see.