The Haiti earthquake in 2010 may have been a watershed. Picture: William Daniels
The Haiti earthquake in 2010 may have been a watershed. Picture: William Daniels/HI

Disaster management: sending out a strong message about what physical therapists can do

Sunday’s WCPT seminar on disaster management had added resonance, following the earthquake in Nepal which has killed 6,900 and left more than 15,000 injured according to latest figures.

Nepalese physical therapists attended the session, having travelled to Singapore under the most difficult of circumstances. Several physical therapists who had planned to attend or speak at the session are instead working with emergency teams in Nepal, attempting to prevent long-term disabilities.
Among them are Peter Skelton, a Project Manager with the organisation Handicap International, who has worked as part of emergency teams in Gaza, Iraq, the Philippines, Libya, Jordan and Haiti. He spoke to WCPT about the significance of Sunday's seminar before he flew out to Nepal. 
“It’s important because it’s about making physical therapists aware of how they can contribute. But it’s also about pulling together a strong message about what WCPT and the physical therapy community as a whole are doing in disaster management.”
At the seminar’s heart was a forthcoming briefing paper from WCPT on the role of physical therapists in emergency response teams. The paper, due out later this year, examines the role of physical therapists in emergencies – both those already working in countries where disasters are likely to happen, and those involved in an international response.
“There’s been an enormous amount of interest in volunteering to work with relief and response organisations,” said Peter, who compiled the paper with Catherine Sykes, WCPT’s Professional Policy Consultant, along with panels of contributors and advisors. “What we’re trying to do is set out for people the best ways of doing that, and providing information that will support them.”
 “We’re also looking at what’s known as the ‘disaster continuum’. There tends to be a very heavy focus on the response phase in the first few weeks after a disaster. But in the document we’re looking at all the phases of the disaster, from the preparedness phase – what you should do in advance of disaster – through to the response, and then after that the recovery phase which is critical as well.” 
“What we know is that it’s far better to prepare for disasters than it is to just invest in the response stage because you can reduce a lot of the risks inherent in disaster.” 
Rehabilitation, and in particular physical therapy he says, is of huge importance in disaster management – and there is growing international recognition of this. 
“I think there has been a huge change in attitude recently. The Haiti earthquake in 2010 was a bit of a watershed. I think that really emphasised to the humanitarian community as a whole how significant the role of rehabilitation was. Since then, there’s been incredibly positive steps, both in new cross-cutting humanitarian guidelines and in the World Health Organization’s foreign medical team guidance. Both of these documents set out to the humanitarian community how important rehabilitation is within a response.”