The panel included (from left): Esther Nkandu, Royson Mercado, Catherine Pope and Michael Brennan

Planning for physical therapy demand is "challenging" worldwide

How do you address shortages of physical therapists, and how can countries plan ahead so that their physical therapy resource needs are met?

Today’s discussion session on global resources for health explored issues faced by different countries in planning and meeting demand for physical therapists. 

Esther Nkandu from Zambia said that Africa was a continent of contrasts in terms of human resources. In countries with high numbers of physical therapists, such as South Africa, most were in private practice and public services were stretched. Some African countries had tiny numbers of physical therapists, others were over-producing.
 
“There are also countries where governments are fully funding training but then not employing physical therapists at the end of it,” she said. “We are seeing a disjoint, a breakdown in communication between ministries.”
 
“What’s missing is exactly the number of physical therapists we need. But when do we know when we’ve reached the target? Zambia is under pressure to train more physical therapists, but we don’t know how many.”
 
Her thoughts were echoed, but from a different environment, by Michael Brennan, Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Physiotherapy Association.  He said workforce planning for the profession in Canada was “extremely challenging”.
 
“Over the last 30 years we’ve tried and failed to establish prediction models based on demand and supply in health services,” he said. 
 
Royson Mercado from the Philippines gave the perspective of a country faced with meeting the challenges of communicable diseases, non-communicable diseases (NCDs), emerging conditions and frequent natural disasters. 
 
Yet there are currently only 1000 to 2000 Philippine physical therapists working in the country to address this burden. The majority of the 26,000 trained there since the 1960s have left to work abroad. 
 
Pauline Kleinitz from the World Health Organization’s Disability and Rehabilitation team said: “From the perspective of low to middle income countries the message is often very clear. We don’t have enough physical therapists, particularly in the face of increasing NCDs and ageing populations.”
 
Other speakers were Catherine Pope from the UK and Brenda Myers, Secretary General of the World Confederation for Physical Therapy.