A research project based on walking with homeless people keeps Cardiff University lecturer Rebecca Hemming’s feet on the ground.
Walk and talk
What is most rewarding about your academic role?
It is a privilege to be part of a cohesive, forward-thinking team at Cardiff University. Most rewarding is to see students graduate and follow their exciting careers. I also love the diversity of my job. Every day is different.
What research are you undertaking?
My PhD focused on non-specific chronic low back pain (NSCLBP) and functional movement. I’m now collaborating with researchers in Bournemouth to develop spinal fluoroscopy research in NSCLBP subgroups.
I have also set up a community walking group for people who are homeless, in temporary housing or experiencing loneliness or hardship. We are evaluating health and activity measures, and participant experiences, following a six-month walking programme to understand the health and wellbeing needs of this community better.
How does this inform your teaching?
My research allows me to put teaching in context and promote research as an integral part of physiotherapy. I think it’s vital that physiotherapy students see ‘research in action’ and feel inspired to consider research as an important aspect of their career. We hope to involve students in the project as volunteer walk leaders.
Why did you develop the walking group?
I have volunteered with a homeless project for five years, helping to coordinate a food provision service. Talking to people who use the service, I began to notice the difficulties they experience in accessing healthcare and physical activities. There are distinct barriers to healthcare for this population, such as the lack of a permanent address, addiction and chaotic lifestyles. I believe services need to be placed within these communities if they are truly to have an impact on health.
I think people really value input from the physiotherapists, as well as the other healthcare professionals involved in the project. Walking is an informal way to build trust and relationships. I think the listening and reflective skills we have as practitioners help to build rapport and enables people to open up while we’re walking.
What feedback have you had?
What surprised me was the ‘social’ impact of the project. Mental health issues are particularly prevalent in this population. One person commented that they ‘walk loads already’ but came along because ‘it’s the only opportunity to have a proper chat for a couple of hours’. I feel it is the ‘mindfulness’ of the walking that has the biggest impact. Walking for leisure rather than out of necessity.
The project does have challenges as it isn’t an easy group to engage in activity. We currently only manage to engage people who are already functioning at a high level. For others, needs such as food and shelter understandably take priority over physical activity and wellbeing. But for those who are engaging in the project, the social aspect appears to be vital. It would be great to see similar projects being set up across the UK.
I would love to see more support for innovative practice. There are lots of clinicians with brilliant ideas for service redesign that need grass roots funding to pilot their ideas. Taking such initiatives into the community and redefining how we approach healthcare would help to meet the needs of different communities.
How do you relax?
We have a three-month-old English pointer puppy. So she keeps me on my toes and helps me to switch off from work. My husband runs our local country pub so a lovely G&T in the beer garden after a game of tennis always helps too! fl
- Rebecca Hemming is a physiotherapy lecturer at Cardiff University
AuthorRebecca Hemming Physiotherapy lecturer at Cardiff University
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