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Global data collection shows dramatic global variations in availability of physical therapy

A data collection project by WCPT has provided evidence of the stark variations in numbers of physical therapists across the world, with some countries having 1000 times more physical therapists available for their population than others.

WCPT’s data collection project, aimed at providing a global profile of the profession, has now collected data from 77 of its 106 member organisations across the world. The 2011 returns have revealed that estimates of the ratio of physical therapists to populations range from a high of one to 354 people in Finland, to a low of one to 530,375 in Malawi. 

The research demonstrates the link between a country’s income status and its physical therapist to population ratio. Using World Bank classifications, the lower income countries generally have fewer physical therapists in proportion to population. 

But the link is not simple. In Europe, for example, countries which have a similarly high income have marked variations in concentration of physical therapists. The Netherlands estimate is one physical therapist for 742 people, while in the UK each physical therapist serves nearly twice as many people (1344). 

Africa is the most under-served region, with one physical therapist to 124,153 people. While in South Africa there is estimated to be one physical therapist for every 8,584 people, in Uganda there is one for every 345,092.

Although some data returns are incomplete, and WCPT is awaiting information from 29 of its member organisations, the returns are already providing valuable international comparisons which WCPT, its member organisations and others can use to influence policy decisions related to health, health service delivery, human resource planning and health professional education. 

The WCPT Executive Committee is strongly encouraging WCPT’s member organisations to submit their new data for 2012, and to check the existing country profiles, which can be viewed on the WCPT website. The more complete the data, the more powerful and useful the picture of physical therapy will be. 

“We are very grateful to those who are completing data returns annually, and encourage them to keep on collecting and updating the information,” says Catherine Sykes, WCPT’s Professional Policy Consultant.  “We seek every member organisation’s support in making sure that the data for their country is included and is accurate.”

The information gathered will be used in WCPT presentations to the World Health Assembly and other global health meetings, and will form the basis of a regular WCPT report on the state of physical therapy globally.  

“This data collection is very significant to the profession internationally,” said Catherine Sykes. “Current discussions on global health workforce planning tend to concentrate on doctors, nurses, midwives and pharmacists, with physical therapists categorised as ‘other’. If physical therapists are not separately identified their contribution to the health of populations is also not identified.”

“Having authoritative data available allows us to produce evidence about the importance of the profession, which supports more informed decision-making by health policy makers. It also makes current shortfalls in some parts of the world quite obvious, helping our member organisations advocate for new and expanded education programmes.”

The data collection covers information on professional regulation, practice, education and professional interest groups, as well as numbers of physical therapists.

Carol Miller of the Canadian Physiotherapy Association (CPA), says the information WCPT is gathering is important in tracking the profession's development globally. She submitted data to WCPT on behalf of the CPA. Although gathering and entering the information took time the process was not difficult, she said.

What advice would she give to other WCPT member organisations which have not yet provided their data? "Submit the information you have," she said. "Not every organisation will be able to provide information for every field, but it is all important information for the profession to have." 

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I strongly believe in getting a unified education process across all Countries. If not globally in a Country wise format, at least within a Country, the education system should be made unified. Such a system will really help the students shifting across Universities, who will not have to learn something new when they intend to join in another University.

The Undergraduate PT syllabus may be planned to suit everyone so that all the students will learn the same syllabus across the whole Country/ all Countries. This will enable the students to have a clear vision on the profession and a need arises for them to learn further, upgrading their knowledge through higher studies and/ or seeking of outside credits through short courses such as Taping, Manual Therapy, Statistics etc.,.

The Postgraduate streams in PT such as Orthopedics, Sports, Cardiology, Rehabilitation, Neurology, Pediatrics, Geriatrics, Community Health, etc, can be made to suit the course specific needs along with a unified base. Such a unified syllabus system will not only enhance the quest to learn more, also, shapes the students in a better, broad minded manner!

This survey, I believe, has come out at the right time. The global variations shown here provide us enough data to know the various streams involved in the profession. I hope this will lead us to think the way forward and create an 'intelligent future' for the next generation!