Mr Brian So considers himself lucky that he had the chance to be part of an induction programme that allowed him to shadow various allied health professionals in a hospital setting.
That was during his junior college days, and the experience sparked his interest in speech therapy. The speech therapist he was on attachment with at the time was so passionate about her work that it left a deep impression on the teenager.
Mr So later applied for a Ministry of Health scholarship and studied speech therapy at the University of Sydney in Australia. After four years of study, he joined the Singapore General Hospital (SGH), an institution under the SingHealth Group, in 2007.
Mr So had to adjust to the local environment in the initial period after returning to Singapore. “During my clinical attachments in Australia, the patients I saw communicated mainly in English,” he says. “When I came back to practise in SGH, I had to manage many Chinese and dialect-speaking patients, which meant relearning my Chinese all over again.”
In his day-to-day work, Mr So helps children with speech and language problems and cleft palate and developmental disorders, like autism.
“Working with children is very interesting and challenging at the same time,” he says. “I once had an 18-month-old child who was diagnosed with a delayed speech and language problem. I used the Hanen programme, a well-known model of family-focused early language intervention for young children with receptive and/or expressive language delays.”
His work is more impactful when the children have supportive and committed caregivers and family members. Mr So mentions a case in which the mother of an 18-month-old child was very committed to the programme and continued to work with her child at home, using techniques she learned at the hospital. After a few sessions, the child started speaking a few simple words. Seeing the child improve was very satisfying for him.
Another group of patients that he works with are adults with swallowing and/or communication disorders that are a result of stroke, or have been brought on by conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or dementia. Adults with a voice problem also visit speech therapists for help in restoring the quality of their voice.
One of his challenges is handling patients who do not follow through with his recommendations and yet expect quick results.
Says Mr So: “There was once a patient who felt she was not getting sufficient therapy time and would kick up a fuss during each of my sessions with her. I patiently continued to work with her on the speech programme.
“After a while, she realised that she was being unreasonable and apologised. We always try our best to empathise with patients as we know that a communication disability can cause them and their families a lot of emotional strain and stress.”
Despite the hurdles, Mr So enjoys his job and feels that his work is sometimes misunderstood.
He says: “We are not ‘speech and drama’ teachers. Speech therapists are trained in the diagnosis and treatment of a variety of speech, voice and language disorders. We are also trained to manage older patients suffering from swallowing problems as well as very young children who are unable to feed properly.
“It is a profession that demands a great deal of patience as results may be apparent only after a long period of time. But the satisfaction when you successfully achieve the desired results is tremendous.”