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​Elevating Allied Health in Singapore

It’s not an exaggeration to say that by all measures, Professor Celia Tan is a trailblazer. A physiotherapist by training, she has made continuing education and research infinitely more accessible for allied health professionals (AHPs) in Singapore since her entry into the workforce in the 80s.

Patients and peers alike benefitted from her efforts.

After obtaining her master’s degree and eventually a PhD in 2003, she made plans to expand service offerings in Singapore, starting with neonatal follow-up care for newborns at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH). She was also involved in developing the new rehabilitation centre at KKH’s new site in 1997.

Prof Tan also continued pushing for further education for AHPs by mooting the idea of the Post-graduate Allied Health Institute (PGAHI) on the SingHealth Campus – PGAHI was successfully launched in 2005, and she was the Director for the Institute until 2012. “Instead of AHPs having to source externally for their own training, we gathered all the educators at one place to optimise this important manpower resource,” she says.

Inter-professional collaboration was another one of Prof Tan’s emerging passions. Together with endocrine and behavioural science clinicians, she co-started SGH’s Lifestyle Improvement & Fitness Enhancement (LIFE) Centre in 2007. “For the first time, we had a one-stop centre for patients, where they could see clinicians, therapists, dietitians and other relevant professionals under one roof,” says Prof Tan, who was the centre’s co-director from 2007 to 2010.

A clear mission

Prof Tan insists that her push for continuing education was borne out of need, as post-graduate therapy training programmes were simply not available in Singapore before the 90s.

Through PGAHI, Prof Tan worked together with various institutes of higher learning to start post-graduate certification programmes, inviting overseas experts passing through Singapore to teach. “It was clear that we needed help to develop on-going training so as to keep abreast of international knowledge and skills, says Prof Tan.

But it was after eight years in public service, when she completed her first scholarship bond in 1990, that she cemented her career purpose, that is to stay in the public healthcare system and develop the physiotherapy profession through education and research.

“There were offers to go into private practice but I decided to stay on in the hospital because I wanted an environment where I could learn more and have the time for training, upgrading and research. This was more important than the higher pay in the private sector, which I felt would not develop me professionally,” she says.

It also became clear to Prof Tan that Academic Medicine is a vital framework for providing the best possible care for patients. And AHPs could no longer work in silos, but should instead find ways to collaborate with doctors and nurses.

An eye on research

After the launch of the LIFE Centre and PGAHI, Prof Tan set her sights on research. “This to me was the next frontier, but it was not easy getting others to come on board,” she says.

For starters, research isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, Prof Tan concedes. And for those who were mildly interested, they were intimidated by the idea of competing for grants with more experienced researchers.

While Prof Tan managed to obtain some funds for nurses and AHPs to kick start some studies, there wasn’t enough continuity. She trooped over to Melbourne, Australia where she convinced then-PhD student and physiotherapist Dr Pua Yong Hao to continue his research career at SGH. Today, Dr Pua is a recognised clinician-scientist and invaluable mentor to allied health researchers.

“He was the shot in the arm we needed,” Prof Tan recalls.

Going strong

To date, Prof Tan continues to immerse herself in clinical projects and research. She is currently working on the SAFE Trip Project, a digital platform for the elderly to view exercise videos and an instructional e-book, play games and do video conferencing with clinicians to prevent falls among the elderly. The project is jointly helmed by Professor David Matchar and Associate Professor Angelique Chan from Duke-NUS Medical School.

The next is an exploration of a robotic aid to increase productivity and reduce injuries for sonographers, who often suffer pain and stiffness from prolonged static work postures or over-exertion.

Prof Tan has also completed a study with the Head and Neck Oncology team to measure the quality of life post-surgical and oncology treatment. She hopes to develop a rehabilitation standard to help patients overcome their physical challenges during their recovery.

On the wish list

Going on the AM-ETHOS Academic Mentor Development Fellowship, Prof Tan had only one thing on her mind, which is to discover the inner workings of a residency programme for AHPs and to establish advanced clinical training for AHPs in SingHealth.

“Having a residency programme for AHPs takes them away from the paper chase [for a master’s], and there’s no need to wait for overseas experts to come to Singapore. With rigorous assessments across a one-year duration, the programme ensures everyone has competencies that meet a standard framework,” explains Prof Tan, who is now working to pool resources to support the AHP Residency initiative through the College of Allied Health.

“Being there at Duke University Hospital, it was just affirming to see that such a residency programme really can work to develop advanced care practitioners from clinical teaching,” she adds.

“In addition to rigorous training, what young AHPs need are mentors who can inspire the next generation to take up leadership”, says Prof Tan.

“We are past the hygiene issues to develop professionally. Any new therapist can now easily go into research, teaching or advanced care practice. The question is whether they have the time and passion to advance themselves. My hope is that with our support, the younger ones can take us to the next level, and be ready for the fourth industrial revolution,” she says.

But Prof Tan is not one to handhold a protégé, especially when she is witnessing the next generation of AHPs wielding a “broader mindset and an inter-professional outlook”. She says, “They will need to find the gaps themselves and plug them. This is a journey that leaders will need to chart themselves.”

About our Awardee

Professor Celia Tan
Group Director, Allied Health, SingHealth
Academic Mentor
Assistant Professor Daniel Dore
Director, Department of Physical Therapy & Occupational Therapy, Duke Health