New WCPT report advocates for PT involvement in disaster management

Physical therapists should be considered central to disaster management, and an intrinsic part of planning for and responding to events such as earthquakes and floods. That is the message of a major new WCPT publication. 

The report points to the need for high quality rehabilitation after disasters. But it also emphasises that the role of physical therapists is not limited to direct provision of rehabilitation. It embraces preparedness and recovery and can include assessment, coordination, psycho-social support and advocacy. The in-depth report emerged from discussions between WCPT and physical therapists involved in humanitarian responses, who identified a need to advocate for rehabilitation professional involvement in all phases of disaster management.

It was informed by a project advisory group including representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Mèdicins Sans Frontières, CBM International and WCPT member organisations in Japan and the Philippines. “It is an impressive document, very timely, and will be a great resource for physical therapists, in particular those involved in the disaster continuum as well as student education,” said WCPT Vice President Margot Skinner, who was a member of the project advisory group. This month marks the fifth anniversary of a massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

“For Japanese physical therapists who have experienced earthquakes and other disasters, the report is well organised and has structured information reflecting on their own activity and describing activities and practice in other disasters,” said Kazuto Handa, President of the Japanese Physical Therapy Association. WCPT’s Professional Policy Consultant Catherine Sykes co-authored the report with Pete Skelton, a London-based physiotherapist and Rehabilitation Project Manager with Handicap International who has worked as part of emergency responses in Nepal, Gaza, Iraq, the Philippines, Libya, Jordan and Haiti.  “Disasters are a growing global problem,” said Pete Skelton, “and while there is often a huge amount of goodwill from physical therapists around the world after a disaster has struck, it can be difficult to know how best to help. When properly prepared, physical therapists can play a vital role in disaster response, but sometimes well intended volunteers can undermine existing locally led emergency work.”

“This guide provides essential information to those interested in national or international disaster response, introducing key international guidance and evidence. Critically, it is also designed to help physical therapists plan and prepare for disasters before they occur, and to support those who are re-building after a disaster has hit.” The Nepal Physiotherapy Association (NEPTA), which played a major role in organising physiotherapy response following the major earthquake in April 2015, was one of the organisations providing case studies for the report. Others included Handicap International, ICRC and CBM. “The vital responsibilities for the physiotherapist during the early days of the adverse situation were: triaging injuries, safe transfers, proper positioning of patients, early mobilisation including bed activities, supply and user training of mobility aids,” said Nishchal Shakya, the NEPTA President.

“We have now realised that this was an opportunity for physiotherapists to prove their value as an integral part in the health system.” The report, The Role of Physical Therapists in Disaster Management, is available for download from the WCPT website.

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