COURSES to help diploma- holding physiotherapists, occupational therapists and radiographers upgrade to a bachelor's degree in their fields will be rolled out at the new Singapore Institute of Technology, which opens in 2011.
The Ministry of Health (MOH) told my paper this month that it has "been working closely" with the Ministry of Education (MOE) to develop the degree-conversion courses in physiotherapy, occupational therapy and diagnostic radiography.
In May this year, the MOE said that it was setting up the institute to offer diploma graduates degree programmes from established foreign universities in partnership with the five polytechnics here.
For years, diploma graduates in allied health services like physiotherapy have been going abroad to get a bachelor's degree, as there are limited opportunities for them here.
Industry professionals say that the higher costs and increased hassle, compared to doing degree programmes in other disciplines, has limited interest in allied health professions.
Nanyang Polytechnic offers diploma courses in various allied health areas, with A-level entry requirements.
But no institutions here offer direct-entry degree courses in physiotherapy, occupational therapy or radiography.
Some diploma holders can upgrade to a degree via a part-time conversion course for occupational therapy, and two distance-learning conversion courses for radiography.
Annual course fees can cost $5,000 to $18,000, without government subsidies. Overseas courses can be more expensive, with annual tuition fees going for $20,000 to $30,000, excluding living expenses.
Details of the new allied health degree courses are not available yet.
Full-time courses at the Singapore Institute of Technology are expected to last for up to two years; and part-time courses up to four years. The Government will provide subsidies for its degree programmes.
Allied health professionals welcomed the new degree courses, as they can help diploma holders save time and money.
The new conversion courses could also provide healthy competition for the few existing programmes, said Dr Celia Tan, president of the Singapore Physiotherapy Association.
But industry players preferred full degree courses taken directly at the university level.
Mr Michael Ong, the president of the Singapore Society of Radiographers, said that having direct-entry degree programmes in radiography helps Singapore "to be competitive on the international stage" as many territories in Asia like Malaysia and Hong Kong already have such courses.
Dr Tan said having to convert a diploma to a degree is a very "long, roundabout way to get a bachelor's degree".
She was worried that the physiotherapy diploma programme is not attracting enough dedicated people, as many A-level students prefer to get a degree directly from a university. Converting the diploma courses to direct-entry degree programmes could tackle this, she said.
MOH said that the public health-care sector intends to hire 300 more physiotherapists and occupational therapists by 2012, on top of the current 500, to meet increased demand as the population ages.
It is trying to meet future needs by hiring foreign allied health professionals, and training more people at Nanyang Polytechnic through a Professional Conversion Programme that helps mid-career workers switch to allied health services.
Interest in this programme, which is subsidised by the Singapore Workforce Development Agency, has grown. The number of eligible candidates for physiotherapy and occupational therapy rose from 172 last year, to 230 this year.
One such student, Ms Cheng Shuet Fong, 42, gave up her job as an information-technology project manager to switch to occupational therapy. She hopes to do a degree here later.
For her, going overseas to pursue a degree would mean substantial financial cost and time away from her family.
"So it's about time the allied heath-care sector got more attention," she said of the new degree- conversion programmes.
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