When Physical Therapists From Across the Globe Unite | The Center for Victims of Torture

When Physical Therapists From Across the Globe Unite

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Jepkemoi Kibet, MSc PT, is a physiotherapist/trainer with CVT Nairobi.

One of my South African professors told me that once you go to the World Confederation of Physical Therapists (WCPT), you never miss another one.  Believe me, I won’t. WCPT is the largest physiotherapy meeting in the world. As the leading global gathering for physiotherapists (physios), this is the place where our knowledge and pursuits take center stage.

Always a unique gathering, WCPT provides a platform for professionals to share their insights and an opportunity to feel connected and engaged. More than 4,500 physiotherapists from 112 countries attended the congress! Being a Ph.D. student, I was determined to get there.

One major thing that motivated me to attend this year is how diversity has been embraced at the previous congresses over time. WCPT has been intentional on diversity and inclusion in its content and programming, so I knew Geneva, where it was held this year, was going to showcase that. Only at this congress do you see diversity at this level, under one roof. And as a participant, you have many sessions to choose from at a time. For me, research, clinical best practices and networking were top priorities.

Furthermore, this year I was invited to participate in the migrant health session at the congress as an expert from Africa, which was humbling for me. The platform enabled me to meet and exchange information with experienced physiotherapists from all over the world. Other memorable sessions included:

Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity represents all the differences among us – age, gender, culture, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, educational background, personality traits, etc. Inclusion is being involved or engaged at whatever capacity or degree someone is comfortable with. The analogy goes: diversity is being at the party but inclusion is feeling comfortable to dance or not dance, play music that you enjoy, and be on the party planning committee. The two go together like bread and butter.

If we think about diversity and inclusion in the context of physiotherapy, we’re tuning in to how people of different ages, genders, religion and ethnicities might deal with an injury and experience pain. One of the speakers stated that it's about recognizing that health goes beyond an individual’s choice. That there are systems of power in place that may positively or negatively affect a person’s ability to seek and receive care. Imagine you are treating a client who has a hurt back. How would you change your approach if this person came from a low socioeconomic bracket? Or if this person was Muslim and practiced fasting during Ramadan? Or if this person experienced anxiety and fear of public spaces like gyms? Or if you could not communicate with the client without an interpreter? You would surely adjust your treatment plan accordingly!

At CVT Nairobi, we attend to refugee survivors of torture from different countries in East Africa and the Great Lakes region. They don’t share the same culture or language. Therefore, one very important thing I learned in this session is that we should have treatments that are culturally adapted in our programs for survivors, because culture is important and most of the treatment approaches are from the western culture. It’s also important for physiotherapists working in the clinic to know how issues like pain are perceived and experienced in different cultures. We have already started the process of adapting our practices to the needs of CVT clients. Now we must start to use culturally acceptable metaphors to explain pain and adapt the outcome measures we use to be culturally sensitive to tribe, gender and sexual orientation.

The speakers put together calls of action to help physiotherapists like me understand and navigate diversity and inclusion:

  1. Be accountable. Use your power as a physio to create a space where your clients feel empowered to use their voice when they can, and where you can advocate for their needs and rights when they cannot. (Here I thought of survivors of torture—we help them restore their dignity.)


  1. Be reflective. This means learning from your great moments and not-so-great moments. The highs and lows. For me, it means thinking about how my trainings and previous experiences align with my core values and how they might allow me to help my clients in their recovery journey. It also means examining my professional development habits – what am I reading, watching, attending and why?


  1. Be critical. Diversify your evidence base and read a few qualitative papers or non-healthcare books. Develop your critical appraisal skills (I second this!) and join a journal club (and this too!). Engage with researchers and other stakeholders. Put your money where your mission is.

Why Sleep Matters

Most of the clients I attend to have sleep problems as a result of torture and trauma, and in the course of their rehabilitation we notice that those with sleep problem report high ratings of pain. After learning simple sleep promotion strategies that clients can adapt to, I’ve now brought them home to implement.

At CVT we had already incorporated strategies to improve sleep health in our sessions by training staff on sleep health hygiene first. To build on this, I’m planning to share the information I learned there with all staff members at the CVT Nairobi office, as this is a very important subject for staff care as well.

Pain Education for Vulnerable Populations

Knowledge gained in this session was particularly important for CVT’s client group, which is comprised of survivors of torture. As a result, I am currently championing a pain education program for survivors of torture and emphasizing a multidisciplinary team approach in the management of pain for this population group. This seminar helped me understand why the clients we attend to hurt for many years after torture, as well as the importance of adapting sessions to meet the needs of different clients.

Mental Health

Physiotherapy in mental health is a specialty within physiotherapy. It is implemented in different health and mental health settings. Coming from a background of working with refugees who are survivors of torture and experience physical and psychological symptoms, this symposium was very motivating. It clearly spelled out the role of physical activity and body-oriented therapies in managing psychological symptoms like PTSD. I learned nuggets and strategies that have been tested and used in other countries. The session just affirmed my need to soldier on and work with my colleagues to develop programs to meet the ever-evolving needs of our clients.

In Conclusion

Perhaps you already knew that physical therapists develop, maintain and restore people’s movement capabilities and functional ability. Maybe you were less aware that we can help people at any stage of life, even when movement and function are threatened by ageing, injury, diseases, disorders, environmental factors or physical conditions – including symptoms of torture. As evidenced by this congress, physiotherapists also contribute significantly to the global health agenda, improving the wellbeing of entire populations and the life quality of those affected by global issues. That’s why it’s so important to discuss physiotherapy at an international level.

As someone who is learning research skills as a Ph.D. student, I found it incredibly energizing to be around such a diverse community of clinicians at this congress, as well as educators, researchers, policy makers and other leaders in the field of physiotherapy. Attending WCPT gave me the opportunity of a lifetime; it enhanced my understanding of humanitarian issues, clinical topics and emerging research. The experiences gained in the conference are treasured memories that I will carry with me throughout my professional life.


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