Planning and long-term commitment are vital if disasters are to be handled well by physios and others, says Catherine Sykes.
Disaster management has become a big topic in physiotherapy. There was standing room only at our seminar on disaster management at the World Confederation for Physical Therapy (WCPT) congress in Singapore in May – a session given added poignancy by the presence of Nepalese physiotherapists, who had arrived at the congress just days after a devastating earthquake had hit their homes.
The WCPT website’s pages on disaster management, containing information and advice on the physiotherapy contribution, has attracted massive numbers of visitors – currently we get about 27,000 page views a month.
This growth in interest is perhaps not unconnected with WCPT’s work in the field. It started in 2007 with the publication of our policy on physiotherapy and disaster management, and continued as we established networks and published more information and advice in the field. Today, we work closely with the aid agency Handicap International which has sent out physios as part of relief teams to Nepal, Syria, the Philippines and Haiti. With them, we will be producing a new briefing paper in the coming months.
We believe physiotherapists need to be aware of how they can contribute in areas affected by disasters. We also want the international community to understand the potential contribution of physical therapists in this field. Ten years ago, disaster management was all too often disaster response, with uncoordinated teams of doctors and surgeons rushing in and then leaving after the immediate crisis. But things began to change with the 2010 Haiti earthquake, when the hazards of this approach became obvious.
Disaster management is now being understood as a continuum, covering disaster prevention, preparedness, response and long-term recovery. The humanitarian community as a whole is coming to recognise how significant the role of rehabilitation is within this continuum, and this is demonstrated in new humanitarian guidelines and guidance from United Nations agencies such as the World Health Organization.
WCPT has received much support and input from its member organisations in countries directly affected by disasters, and where local physiotherapists have played an incredibly important role in rebuilding lives – most notably Japan, the Philippines, New Zealand and Nepal. We are also benefiting from the expertise of physiotherapists with huge experience of international response, such as Pete Skelton and Diana Hiscock from the UK, who contributed to our congress session and the new materials we will offer. Through these resources, we want to help organisations and individual practitioners have a better understanding of what preparation, skills and training are needed for physiotherapists who want or need to practise in this area.
It is inspiring that increasing numbers of physios are prepared to step in when disaster strikes. But the field has special challenges, and doesn’t suit everyone. Have a look at the material on our website to get a better idea of whether it might suit you.
Our advice to interested physios is to go through existing frameworks – that means registering with the UK International Emergency Trauma Register. This will guide physios to the right training, match their skills to needs, and ensure that when called on they will be up to the job.
- Catherine Sykes is a WCPT professional policy consultant
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