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Physiotherapy and the Christchurch earthquakes

Disasters can happen anywhere in the world at any time. Traditionally physiotherapists have travelled overseas to provide support in the post-disaster phase – in this situation the acute event has passed, and responding physiotherapists can be confident that their home and family are safe and stable to return to.

The Canterbury earthquakes and their aftermath provided more acute challenges in the provision of health care. Physiotherapists lived through a life-changing event, with significant changes to their personal and professional lives, and the lives of their patients.

Christchurch’s February 2011 earthquake occurred in the middle of a working day, and the immediate aftermath found physiotherapists challenged between providing support to patients and colleagues and concern for home and family.

The following months provided a unique opportunity to capture how physiotherapists managed living and working through a disaster. I was part of a team at Otago that undertook a study (How did the Canterbury Earthquakes Affect Physiotherapists and Physiotherapy Services? A Qualitative Study*) that explored the issues faced by physiotherapists in Canterbury.

Given the challenges we faced responding to the Christchurch earthquakes (despite being in a developed country) it is timely that the WCPT have recently issued a report: The role of the Physiotherapist in disaster management. The need for physiotherapy involvement in disaster management is strongly promoted and information is provided for therapists who want to be involved in this field. The report focuses on preparedness, response and recovery.

These concepts also came through in our New Zealand study where we recommended disaster preparedness at all levels, so that a cohesive set of physiotherapy skills can be shared with other agencies. In addition we identified listening as an important skill that is often undervalued in responding to disasters. Physiotherapists listened to patients’ stories, enabling them to provide support to the psychological recovery of patients.

Disaster management is a complex process, and the WCPT provides resources for Physiotherapist to engage in this process.

Sandy Ferdinand is a Professional Practice Fellow at the University of Otago School of Physiotherapy (Clinical Coordinator – Christchurch Centre) and a member of the Physiotherapy Board.

* Mulligan H., Smith C. M., and Ferdinand S. (2015), How did the Canterbury Earthquakes Affect Physiotherapists and Physiotherapy Services? A Qualitative Study, Physiother. Res. Int., 20: 60–68, doi: 10.1002/pri.1597