Some patients require more than operations or pills. Medical Social Workers like Tan Zhi Tong are always ready to provide psychosocial care, helping them recover emotionally, psychologically and directing them to appropriate financial aid.
When you tell somebody to “get well soon”, you would typically hope that the person would rid his body of the malaise, have his broken bones healed or his wounds closed up. However, recovery goes beyond administering medication or putting on a bandage. The psychosocial aspect of a patient’s convalescence is also critical.
Psychosocial care addresses the psychological, emotional, economic and physical impact of a patient’s illnesses. For instance, somebody who had to amputate a limb due to diabetes may have to get used to his or her new self, a long-term process of self-discovery which can be stressful and scary. Patients suffer even more when they worry about treatment costs, being a burden on others, or their future post-op.
To help them get back on track, we have dedicated Medical Social Workers like Tan Zhi Tong. She took a leap of faith into healthcare after realising her penchant for providing care for people in her previous job, and she hasn’t looked back since.
“I was working with a statutory board, where I got up close with residents in the community. While I was there, I learned about their needs and struggles and saw that many of them, especially elderly residents, did not know how to seek help when it came to healthcare settings,” she started.
“I realised that I liked working with the geriatric population and thus decided to start off my Medical Social Work journey with a community hospital.”
She pursued a Bachelor of Social Work and started her career as a Medical Social Worker. After four years at a community hospital, Zhi Tong moved on to Alexandra Hospital, an institution under the National University Health System (NUHS).
Currently, Zhi Tong cares for patients’ cares in her role as Senior Medical Social Worker.
“I am working primarily in the Rehabilitation Medicine Ward with patients who suffer from acute illness and injuries,” she said, on her role and responsibilities.
“Some may have the idea that Medical Social Workers only provide financial assistance. Though this is one of our main roles, we also look at a patient holistically by considering their biological, psychological and spiritual needs and social circumstances.”
Zhi Tong added that she and her team also address patients’ grief and loss.
“I provide support and motivation during their darkest times, preparing them to return to the community. I also advocate patients’ wants to the multidisciplinary team consisting of doctors, nurses and other allied health professionals at the hospital, while ensuring that the advocacy is achievable by working and managing my patients on their goals.”
Zhi Tong has worked on many cases in her career, but one particular patient has a special place in her heart.
“I was working with somebody who recovered from a stroke. She was a single mother who had limited social support and struggled to upkeep her home. When planning for her discharge, we had to look at how to modify her environment to maximise her independence and ability to continue to be a mother,” she elaborated.
Zhi Tong was shocked when she visited her patient’s home. It was cluttered and cramped with more things than people. As it turned out, the mother was unable to throw away anything that reminded her of her son who had passed on, and the result was a messy and jumbled living space.
“I had to counsel her, manage her emotions and process the grief she had built over the years. I also had to find new support systems to build up her emotional and physical resources as she needed a lot of help for her to continue living in the community.”
The help did not end there, as she worked closely with voluntary welfare organisations and even engaged the help of a fellow therapist to declutter the home. This complex yet gratifying case has been a constant source of motivation for Zhi Tong.
It is quite evident that Zhi Tong has supportive colleagues and a positive work environment. From a broader perspective, NUHS also facilitates the hard work done by Zhi Tong and her fellow Medical Social Workers by providing plenty of opportunities for her to grow professionally.
She explained: “NUHS is the backbone to all the services rendered to patients. For instance, when a patient needs further financial assistance and we have exhausted all other options, the NUHS Fund Limited provides a much-needed channel for charity assistance for them.”
I have also been able to attend courses to enhance my social work practice and even hone my leadership skills thanks to NUHS.”
Beyond her role at the hospital, Zhi Tong is also an advocate for her discipline. Recently, she gave a career talk to Ngee Ann Polytechnic students. The experience has been a rewarding and fun one for Zhi Tong.
“Medical Social Work is not a dull and deskbound job,” she emphasised. “Clinically you can specialise in areas such as rehabilitation medicine, geriatric, or paediatrics. In addition, there is a competency framework which allows you to develop your career in different paths. We can be clinical educators, researchers, administrators and managers.”
Zhi Tong hopes to see more people, especially those who have a natural affinity with people, join her as a Medical Social Worker. The rewards are spiritually rewarding in more ways than one.
“Social workers have the privilege of being invited into people’s lives when they are at their most vulnerable. They allow you to take a glimpse, to walk with them and steer them towards a road of recovery. In a hospital, we are the ones who are able to paint a holistic picture of the person and to share their goals and wishes if they struggle to find hope of recovery.”
“If you want to be challenged to open your mind, be non-judgmental and do an unconventional job, then this is a career you should consider. Every day is never boring.”
The Healthcare Merit Award is applicable for students who wish to pursue a career in Medical Social Work.
This article was first published in BrightSparks Magazine July 2021. Republished with permission from CareerBuilder Singapore.