How can we make physiotherapy work better? Janet Wright meets Sally Singh, a newly-installed CSP fellow who’s spent 30 years finding the answers
Sally Singh’s career looks like a smooth escalator-ride from diploma to doctorate to professorship to CSP fellowship, picking up a swath of grants and publications along the way.
Yet in 1983, she had barely started her first rotation, at Good Hope Hospital in the West Midlands town of Sutton Coldfield, before she started to doubt her career choice.
‘I had a major wobble early on – I didn’t know what I was doing,’ says the now Professor Singh.
Like other areas of healthcare, physiotherapy then had little published evidence to underpin its practice.
Professor Singh wasn’t satisfied with doing things because that’s how they had always been done.
Unsure whether she would stay in physiotherapy, she took an Open University degree focusing on health and science as a back-up.
‘There was so little evidence for what we were doing,’ she says, ‘and I was thinking “I’m not sure if this is for me”. I either had to go into research or leave.’
Luckily for the profession, she took the research path.
Now head of pulmonary and cardiac rehabilitation at Glenfield Hospital, Leicester, she has followed a physio’s practical, patient-centred approach through dozens of published studies.
When she started her doctoral research, for example, the gold standard for assessing respiratory problems was an array of expensive and time-consuming laboratory tests.
‘Patients didn’t like it because of all the equipment, and having to use a mouthpiece was unpleasant for people with breathing problems,’ she says.
She responded by adapting a fitness test used for healthy athletes: pulmonary patients walked around two cones, 10 metres apart, in time to a gradually speeded-up series of bleeps.
The ‘incremental shuttle walking test’ gained her a PhD and is now used around the world.
The dozens of papers Professor Singh has written or co-authored reflect this down-to-earth attitude to solving problems, at a level working physios can put into practice. ‘It’s all clinical,’ she says.
‘It can all be used straightaway.’
While running a busy hospital department and working part-time at Coventry University, she continues with hands-on physiotherapy, assessing patients for rehabilitation.
Her latest pioneering work is the online self-managed rehab programmes her team has developed for both cardiac and pulmonary patients. (See ‘Going live’, page 26, Frontline, 5 December 2012).
‘The evidence base is going to become increasingly important,’ says Professor Singh, ‘as providers need to show they’re producing value for money.
‘In our department, we are constantly evaluating the service and changing how we do things, if necessary, to improve the service for patients.’
As a member, chair and president of national and international rehabilitation bodies, her achievements have been widely recognised.
But, she says, of her CSP fellowship, ‘It’s lovely to be recognised by your own profession, isn’t it?’ fl
Name: Sally Singh
1983: Diploma, Wolverhampton School of Physiotherapy
1993: PhD, Loughborough University
2003: Professor of pulmonary and cardiac rehabilitation, Coventry University
2012: CSP fellowship for outstanding contribution to research, education and clinical practice
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