Physical therapists urged to take leadership and co-ordination roles

A presentation on Rehabilitation in Humanitarian Emergencies, reminded physical therapists that emergencies can happen anywhere in the world.

Pete Skelton from Humanity + Inclusion (HI) said occurrences that have a negative impact upon the lives of populations do not discriminate between countries of high or low incomes. However, disasters have the greatest impact in countries with weak healthcare systems, which often means even weaker access to therapy services. The preparedness of physical therapists around the world to any emergency situation is therefore vital.

He challenged delegates to consider their role as physical therapists when an emergency situation occurs and to think about preparedness plans on a graded scale. His advice included: consider how you would communicate with your family and ensure they are safe, assess your organisation’s preparedness around the provision of physical therapy, explore the relevant country’s national preparedness plan, which all countries will have in place. He referred delegates to the Inform Index for Risk Management database to increase awareness of the likely hazards in different countries.

Daniel Wappenstein Deller, president of the Ecuadorian Society of Physiotherapy and award winner of the WCPT Humanitarian Service Award 2019, demonstrated how vital access to rehabilitation is for patients in emergency situations.

In a fascinating insight into physical therapists’ response to the earthquake in Ecuador in 2016, he shared how he and his team project managed over 20 ‘brigades’ of physical therapists across all the key areas affected and highlighted the logistical challenges involved. Delegates were inspired by his stories of overcoming barriers to get to people in need – from environmental barriers such as crossing swollen rivers and boulder avalanches, to resources and facilities for therapists and other professionals to treat patients. His message was that although an earthquake lasts only 55 seconds, the impact is felt by people for far longer and he is pleased to have secured funding to continue rehabilitation programmes in the region for the past three years.

HI’s Ripon Chakraborty, from Bangladesh, talked about the importance of taking a Disaster Risk Management approach in his work with refugees from Myanmar. With a migrant population of over a million people, limited access to rehabilitation and other services and an upcoming cyclone season, physical therapy treatment for the refugees is a mammoth task. Many of the refugees have disabilities and Ripon explained the process for assessing, prioritising treatment then managing patient influx and demand from the moment refugees cross the border. A charter on inclusion of persons with disabilities in humanitarian action was launched at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, which 22 states of the European Union have signed up to, as well as 14 UN agencies.

Kamaran Dizai, from Iraq, focused on his work during the recent conflict in Mosul and the many lessons learned from providing rehabilitation to people in extremely challenging conditions. To amplify the situation, he shared pictures and footage of people with prosthetic limbs and the limited space and resources available for assessments, gait training and rehabilitation.

One of the main key messages from this session was that physical therapists can be key players in this challenging environment and they should not hesitate in taking a leadership and co-ordination role when disaster strikes.