A break-out group at WCPT's 2011 General Meeting discussing how the data collection project will work.
A break-out group at WCPT's 2011 General Meeting discussing how the data collection project will work.

WCPT addresses global information issues with data collection project

Researchers, policy makers, health professions and professional bodies around the world seek reliable, globally comparable data about health services and workforce so that targets can be set and standards raised. But good data is elusive. This month, the World Confederation for Physical Therapy launches a new project to help address the problem.

WCPT’s new data collection project will gather internationally significant pieces of information from WCPT member organisations which will help the profession know more about:

  • the number of physical therapists represented by each member organisation and region;
  • numbers of physical therapists in relation to national populations; 
  • trends in physical therapy regulation, education and practice.

When collected into what is known as a common data set the information will provide comparisons of ratios of PTs to population between nations and regions, indications of which regions have low numbers of PTs in relation to population, and information that will support planning for service delivery and submissions for increased funding.

“There are currently many difficulties in setting international, and even national, guidelines on the appropriate number of physical therapists by population and by setting,” says WCPT Secretary General Brenda Myers. “The difficulties include variations between urban and rural populations, variations in the health profile of the population, differences in health service structures and types of facilities.

“There may be ways to overcome these difficulties, but they can only be achieved when WCPT has access to reliable, comparable data about the profession across the globe, and that is what our data collection project is all about.”

The lack of international data currently available is a source of frustration to some member organisations, who want to see international standards that they can use as a campaigning tool with governments. The Colegio de Kinesiologos de Chile, the Chilean physical therapy organisation, says that Chile is now subject to international quality standards in other fields, so would like to see international guidelines for human resources in physical therapy.

At last year’s WCPT General Meeting, the Japanese Physical Therapy Association called on WCPT to make more information available to its member organisations, with data on education systems, scope of practice, autonomy and regulation across the world more easily available.

Catherine Sykes, WCPT’s Professional Policy Consultant, says a common data set will go some way towards addressing these issues. It is now up to member organisations to provide the information that WCPT requests, so that the profession globally can benefit. 

“WCPT is frequently asked questions about the number of physical therapists, their education, whether the profession is regulated and how practice is conducted,” she said. “The aim of the data collection is to enable WCPT to answer such questions and to present a profile of the profession for a range of planning and evaluation purposes. The power of information is greater when it is complete and accurate so it is important that every member organisation participates in the collection.”

Finalising the way the data is collected, and the wording to be used in the collection, has been a painstaking process, says Brenda Myers. “We have to ensure there will be a consistent understanding of what is being asked for all over the world, otherwise the data will not be comparable,” she says.

“Some member organisations may wonder why questions they feel are important have not been included in this first stage of data collection. What appears to be a simple question may, in fact, require several different pieces of information to answer. So we wanted to give member organisations the chance to respond, and not overload them straight away. This first stage will help in the development of future stages.”

The current lack of good quality, comparable, global information about health workforce is not a problem limited to physical therapy. Jim Buchan, Professor in Workforce Policy at Queen Margaret University in Scotland, says that allied health professionals generally have a problem of visibility in world statistics on health workforce, and therefore tend to be overlooked in planning. 

He points out that the World Health Organization’s world health statistics use six categories to provide country comparisons of the health workforce: physicians, nursing and midwifery, dentistry, pharmaceutical, environment/public health, and community health workers. The place of professions such as physical therapy is unclear.

“In this process of aggregation, the allied health professions workforce loses out, its contribution becomes hidden, and its policy relevance is masked,” says Jim Buchan, who is an Associate at the WHO European Observatory on Health Systems.

WCPT has worked with both the WHO and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in developing a description of physical therapy to be used when international labour force statistics are being gathered, but these are still not widely used.

Jim Buchan says: “It is imperative that national and international policy makers do not rely solely on high level workforce data in developing a more informed understanding of the actual and potential contribution of professions such as physical therapy to meeting global health needs.”

He points out that the WHO, ILO and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development routinely aggregate data collected from different countries. “However, this type of exercise is constrained by the need to ensure that the data provided by countries is accurate, complete and up to date. Often it is none of these.”

He welcomed WCPT’s new initiative to collect a common data set. “WCPT is to be commended if it can contribute to an examination of the limitations of current workforce data, and make improvements.”