The panel of speakers at the discussion panel on new technologies.
The panel of speakers at the discussion panel on new technologies.

Can physical therapists rise to the challenge of new technologies?

Physical therapists have been slow adopters of new technologies – and must learn to overcome common barriers and concerns if their patients are ultimately to benefit. This was one of the key messages from a panel of experts in a discussion panel on new information technologies at the WCPT Congress in Amsterdam.

At the session, where members of the audience were encouraged to give their thoughts and experiences, delegates discussed some of the reasons why social networking (such as Facebook and Twitter), blogs, e-learning, and “wikis” had not been embraced more wholeheartedly by physical therapists and their managers, given the potential benefits for spreading expertise and patient education.

They raised important issues such as: concerns over privacy and patient confidentiality; the lack of academic rigour in much internet information; professional resistance to change; the dull experience of many e-learning packages; institutional/employer resistance to professionals spending time on social networks.

Rachael Lowe, a UK physiotherapist who works independently as a specialist in providing technology solutions to the profession, said that e-learning provides a valuable opportunity for the profession to progress faster than it has in the past. Technology also provides opportunities for physical therapists to pool knowledge, share ideas and promote the profession. 

But physical therapists also need to address the issues of how to remain professional online, and how to assess the information they find. 

“We need to be more engaged,” said Rachael Lowe, who set up the open professional resource Physiopedia (www.physio-pedia.com). “We’re not a tech savvy profession, but we are getting there.”

Lisa Harvey, Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, Australia, who has developed e-learning material for physical therapists on spinal cord injury, agreed that the potential of e-learning for the profession was huge. “We’re going to find the care of our patients is going to lift worldwide,” she said.

“We need resources to implement technologies, and we need to change mindsets and educate people how to use technology for professional growth,” she said. “We also need ethical guidelines on how we should use these techniques.”

Eugene Mutimura from Rwanda is Director of Research and Professional Scientific Capacity Building at the Women’s Equity in Access to Care and Treatment of HIV infection in Kigali. He said mobile phone technology in particular helped centres interact with other centres, and connected health professionals to experts quickly through telehealth. The practical applications of internet-based communications, such as Skype, could be limited in African countries because of technical problems with connectivity and bandwidth, he said. However, the exchange of information enabled by new technologies had a more profound effect on professions and their growth in developing countries than in developed countries.

Neil Pakenham-Walsh, co-ordinator of the Healthcare Information for All by 2015 (HIFA2015) campaign and co-director of the Global Healthcare Information Network, stressed the importance of new technologies for providing healthcare information to low and middle income countries. The publication of research and open access journals over the internet could have an important impact on professional development. 

“We must use information technology to connect all the different parties – professionals, patients and decision makers. We need everyone to be in the same room, and we need support networks which help all these groups to understand each other.”

Neil Pakenham-Walsh is calling on all physical therapists to join the HIFA2015 campaign. You can find out more at www.hifa2015.org

Other useful links related to the debate:

Physical therapy “wikipedia”
www.physio-pedia.com

Sharing physical therapy exercises
www.physiotherapyexercises.com

International networks
www.scipt.org

E-learning
www.webducate.net