Physiotherapists from across the Pacific expand their skills - Interplast

Physiotherapists from across the Pacific expand their skills

Physiotherapists from across the Pacific are gaining confidence in treating burns, hand injuries and providing basic speech therapy to children with cleft palates thanks to ongoing training from Interplast volunteers.

In mid-August physiotherapists Jenny Ball and Gillian Webb, and speech pathologist Melissa Parkin, travelled to Suva in Fiji to provide a week of training for a group of 21 physiotherapy students and practising physiotherapists from across the Pacific. This was the second year that Interplast has delivered this workshop in partnership with the Fiji National University, as part of their fourth-year physiotherapy training.

Jenny said the training was very important for helping physiotherapists to understand the range of issues that they can deal with, particularly when they will often be based in remote areas where there are no specialised health professionals.

“One of the main aims is to make sure the physiotherapy staff see this as a normal part of their work in the same way that they would treat a broken leg,” said Jenny. “We’ve got to normalise it.”

Jenny used the example of treating burns to illustrate how training physiotherapists contributes to Interplast’s broader surgical work.

“In the Pacific region a lot of people are burnt because they use kerosene lamps for lighting their houses and they use kerosene for cooking,” she said. “What the surgeons in Suva are finding is that patients are presenting down the track with a lot of contractures.


“A contracture is when the skin becomes very tight, and they’re not able to move their joints fully, so they’re not able to work, look after family, and depending on where the burn occurred, sometimes they can’t walk or can’t lift their heads up. Contractures are a big issue but physiotherapists currently don’t have the confidence to treat them.”

Jenny said if a person with a burn injury received the right treatment immediately, including physiotherapy, it could prevent or minimise contractures, meaning the patient can resume normal life quite quickly, and often preventing the need for surgery by Interplast volunteers at a later date.

“What we’re hoping is that over time we see a change in practice,” she said. “As the students graduate, there will be less contractures that Interplast teams have to operate on.”

Jenny said all the trainees were very enthusiastic and their knowledge and skills greatly improved during the week. A highlight was the men from different islands jumping on to sewing machines to practice making pressure garments that are used on burns patients.

Jenny said that training around cleft palates was important because there was a high incidence throughout the Pacific, and no local speech therapists. Children with cleft palates often don’t develop normal speech, and can also have problems with feeding, which leads to nutrition issues. “And then even if they have their surgery by the Interplast team they may not develop their speech properly if they don’t have someone to teach them how to do it,” Jenny said.


Many of the practising physiotherapists from countries such as Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Solomon Islands had already received one-on-one Interplast mentoring in their home countries, with similar follow-up to happen over the coming months.

Interplast supported these physiotherapists to travel to Suva for the training, giving them a fantastic opportunity to engage with their colleagues from other similar countries, and develop networks with others working in isolated settings.

This program was funded by the Australian Government’s aid budget through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP), with support from the Strengthening Specialised Clinical Services in the Pacific (SSCSiP) program and the Rotary Club of Melbourne.

Jenny Ball has been volunteering for Interplast for more than 16 years. Find out more here.

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