Helping seniors stay healthy

WITH Malaysia just eight years away from seeing 15.3% of its population made up of those aged 60 and over, there is a dire need for tertiary education institutions to produce more occupational therapists to meet the rising demand.

Pointing to a shortage of occupational therapists in the country, Malaysian Healthy Ageing Society president Prof Dr Shahrul Bahyah Kamaruzzaman said having more medical schools and public universities that are supported by the government to provide occupational therapy programmes at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels can help alleviate the lack of therapists in the country.

Prof Dr Shahrul Bahyah KamaruzzamanProf Dr Shahrul Bahyah Kamaruzzaman

“This also allows for better career growth as occupational therapists with diplomas can move on to earn a degree in the field.

“By doing so, they become more skilled and open themselves up to opportunities such as the ability to train other occupational therapists.

“Alternatively, these talents can join academia to become master trainers to further develop and enhance our existing occupational therapy curriculum.

“It will also enable them to branch into industry as trained graduates,” Prof Dr Shahrul Bahyah, who is also a consultant geriatrician at the Universiti Malaya Faculty of Medicine, told StarEdu. However, for the profession to flourish, there must be more medical schools and universities that provide occupational therapy programmes, she pointed out.

Currently, there are less than five universities that offer occupational therapy degree programmes, she noted.

We cannot merely stop at the diploma level because occupational therapists need to be more skilled, she said, adding that the number of students taking up occupational therapy programmes are on the rise.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of a more defined career pathway, compared to other fields such as medicine, the enrolment numbers for occupational therapy are much lower than for other medical courses, she explained.

“That’s why it is crucial to ensure there are career opportunities before we encourage school-leavers to study occupational therapy.

“So, to address the shortage of occupational therapists, the healthcare and the education industries need to invest in providing clear career trajectories, training, support, and the infrastructure for graduates in the field,” she said, adding that upskilling opportunities are just as crucial as this would allow the graduates to move into other industries.

The government, she said, has made some strides to encourage the uptake of occupational therapy courses but there is still much to be done.

“We need to look at the bigger picture. It is not just about trying to build one area of expertise, but also to build an entire ecosystem for our ageing population that is in need of care.

“If we want to provide cohesive patient-centred care, especially for older people, we need to develop a multidisciplinary team and we need these teams to not only work in specialist hospitals, but to also provide home care services that are accessible to those in need.”

One way to achieve this where an ageing society is concerned, she said, is to include age care and the management of older people into medical school curriculums, be it for the training of doctors, nurses, dietitians, physiotherapists or occupational therapists.

Detrimental to the economy

Occupational therapists are experts who facilitate patients’ recovery, along with physical therapists and geriatricians. The lack of these professionals, Prof Dr Shahrul Bahyah cautioned, will have detrimental economic effects on the country as it ages.

“A nation with a high number of older people who are dependent and cannot contribute will cost us.

“Malaysia has one of the highest rates of ageing in Asia and we are unprepared to face it, from infrastructure to support and social services.

“We need our seniors to age safely, and to be well cared for.

“This requires a multidisciplinary effort as occupational therapists are integral to a medical team’s successful management of a patient, from in-patient to outpatient care, as well as facilitation in the successful discharge plan for home care services,” she added.When an older person is admitted for stroke, she explained, the patient and his caregiver need support, from helping the patient to stand, sit and get up, to his rehabilitation.

This is to enable the patient to regain his functional ability.

After assessing the patient’s physical ability, occupational therapists help the patient adjust to his physical limitations through the use of aids, assess his home in ensuring it is a safe environment for him to return to, and ensure the caregiver is trained to assist the patient to adapt to his new physical reality post-stroke.

“They improve patients’ quality of life and get them back to their daily routines through activities like cognitive stimulation for people with dementia, and cognitive training and rehabilitation.

“They provide an individualised approach and tailored programmes,” Prof Shahrul said, adding that the lack of these experts would see a higher rate of physical dependency on caregivers, which would then increase the cost of care and living, subsequently affecting the quality of life of Malaysians.

Better awareness and preparation

Malaysian Healthy Aging Society advisor and Perdana University School of Occupational Therapy dean Prof Nathan Vytialingam said Malaysia is lagging far behind the global standard requirements in its production of occupational therapists.

Malaysia only has 1,892 registered occupational therapists as of 2020 (see infographic), he noted.

Alarmingly, it also revealed that for every 10,000 head of population in the country, there is only one occupational therapist.

Prof Nathan said the nation should have at least 6,000 occupational therapists.

One major contributing factor to the shortage of occupational therapists is the lack of awareness about the field.

“We often place a huge emphasis on mainstream occupations such as medicine and law when advising our children on which profession to take up.

Prof Nathan VytialingamProf Nathan Vytialingam

“But as a country progresses and the more well-equipped and advanced the diagnosis of people and medicines become, you will realise that the role occupational therapists play is extremely important in a country’s prosperity.”

He said the role of occupational therapists is not limited to caring for the elderly, as they also work with children.

“It is not medical doctors but these therapists who assist children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), for example, so we need them,” he pointed out.


What it’s like...

'MY passion is rooted in working in a people-oriented industry where I get to meet clients from diverse backgrounds. I enjoy helping them analyse the root cause of their issues and finding the best solution for them. There are a very limited number of universities that offer courses in the occupational therapy field so it is good that the important role occupational therapists play is getting acknowledged. Now that I’m in this industry, I have noticed the increasing demand for such therapists, especially for paediatric cases such as autism, ADHD, slow learners, and children diagnosed with Down Syndrome.' -Chow Pei Ru, 26

'I stumbled upon this course as I was looking to study a programme that would allow me to engage with people and give back to the community. As a practitioner, I have a wider view of how many patients and families require our services. The increase in the number of patients in need of rehabilitation over the years shows the need for occupational therapists in our country. The shortage of experts will impact patients’ waiting time to receive treatment and consequently, their condition will worsen or their recovery will remain stagnant over time. The field is challenging and requires one to think broadly because you should take a holistic approach when identifying factors that may affect your patients’ well-being and their participation in everyday activities.' -Jenyfer Belavandran, 30

Article type: free
User access status:

Related stories:

Caring for an ageing nation

Subscribe now to our Premium Plan for an ad-free and unlimited reading experience!

Next In Education

Doctor, doctor: Identical twins graduate together with medical degrees
Why some Malaysian youths are going bankrupt - Insolvency Dept: Over 20% of bankrupts are youths
How young Malaysians can avoid being poor
‘Teach us how to manage money wisely’
Royal plan to ‘future-proof people’
Urgent need for reform
How to conduct a parent-teacher meeting
Cash, laptops to aid community
M’sian teens pen their way to the top

Others Also Read