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Physios key to world disaster care

Tagged In:  Physiotherapy

There's growing awareness of the important contribution that can be made by physiotherapists in global disaster relief.

In 2008, Haiti was home to around 970,000 disabled people, making up about 10% of the population. After the country was hit by a devastating earthquake in 2010, this figure rose to well over one million. Two years later, a study by the University of Rhode Island assessed the experiences of physiotherapists and occupational therapists in the post-earthquake relief work, concluding that they can play a critical role in disaster settings.

In March this year, the World Confederation for Physical Therapy (WCPT) published a report entitled The Role of Physical Therapists in Disaster Management, restating the case for physiotherapists to be involved in emergency medical teams. The figures quoted in the report are staggering: between 2002 and 2011 disasters around the world affected an average of 268 million people per year and killed an average of 107,000 people per year. The two worst incidents in terms of deaths and injuries were the afore-mentioned Haiti earthquake and the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.

Evidence shows the benefits of rehabilitation provided following disasters, which include fewer deaths, reduced length of stay in hospital and fewer ongoing health issues. The report says that physiotherapists can play an important role in assessment, coordination, psycho-social support and advocacy, as well as providing direct rehabilitation therapy. It recommends that interested professionals should be offered training in how to respond to disasters during entry-level and post-qualifying training programmes. 

The WCPT website sums up the on-going positive input that physiotherapists can have: "Once the immediate emergency is over and the television cameras and journalists have moved on, there is still much work physical therapists can do in disaster zones to build for the future." This includes working with the community and local allied health professionals to plan and implement rehabilitation activities, as well as putting in place response plans for future emergencies.

Some NGOs involved in disaster relief are taking the lead. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) increasingly calls on the services of physiotherapists during its emergency interventions, describing their contribution as 'integral to post-surgery' and 'key to the delivery of quality care'. And in June last year, two physiotherapy academics from Teesside University (Professor Liz Holey and principal lecturer Anne Binks) began working with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to develop a set of standards for physiotherapy, which will be implemented in rehabilitation projects the organisation supports around the world.

"...the number of disasters and the number of people affected is rising, while at the same time injury to mortality rates are also increasing," says the WCPT report. "The implication of this is that disasters are likely to cause an increasing number of injuries and result in increasing numbers of people with impairment over the coming years." 

Having properly trained physiotherapists ready to respond could make a big difference.

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