Trends in Global Health: Improving Health Equity Through Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation

Jennifer Audette, PT, PhD writes this installment of Trends in Global Health highlighting equity as one of the Guiding Principles of the American Physical Therapy Association’s Vision – a principle that fits within both the global health agenda and the HVO mission.

September 8th is World Physical Therapy Day! The day is an opportunity for physical therapists from all over the world to raise awareness about the crucial contribution the profession makes to keep people well, mobile and independent. This year the overarching theme is “Movement for Health” with the message of promoting “physical activity for life.” The day is meant to highlight the important role that physical therapists play across the lifespan. This is one of the strategic initiatives of the World Confederation for Physical Therapy.

At the national level in the United States, the American Physical Therapy Association lays out a vision to “transform society by optimizing movement to improve the human experience.” This is underpinned by the belief that “… movement is a key to optimal living and quality of life for all people that extends beyond health to every person’s ability to participate in and contribute to society. The complex needs of society [require that] the profession engage with consumers to reduce preventable health care costs and overcome barriers to participation in society….”

Two of the Guiding Principles of the APTA’s vision are particularly relevant to global health. These include:

  • Access/Equity – A recognition of health inequities and disparities, and efforts to ameliorate them through innovative service delivery, advocacy, attention to the influence of social determinants of health, collaboration with community entities to expand the benefits provided by physical therapy, serving as a point of entry to the health care system, and direct outreach to consumers to educate and increase awareness.
  • Advocacy – A dedication to advocating for patients, clients and consumers both as individuals and as a population, in practice, education and research settings to manage and promote change, adopt best practice standards and approaches, and ensure that systems are built to be consumer-centered.

Further, a Global Health Special Interest Group (GHSIG) has existed as part of the APTA Health Policy and Administration – the Catalyst Section since 1986. The GHSIG Mission is to provide resources, information and support to SIG, Section and APTA members regarding global health, health disparities, cultural competency, disability and service-learning in resource-limited settings.

For the physical therapists involved with HVO, these professional core beliefs and values drive our involvement. Physical therapists have played an important part in HVO’s history. Since 1986, 867 physical therapists have completed 1,358 assignments in 37 countries through 49 projects. Interestingly, 37% of physical therapist volunteers have served more than once. Fifteen physical therapists have been honored with HVO’s Golden Apple Award. Three have served or serve on the HVO Board of Directors.

The HVO physical therapy program continues to evolve and grow. Recently a group of physical therapists involved with HVO met for two days to discuss the future of the program and the evolution to a more rehabilitation-minded way of thinking about program provision. A lot of great brainstorming and discussion occurred!

There is a lot of ongoing potential for curricular consultation and advising, professional organization development and support, online and on-site teaching, continuing education for professionals, research consulting and advising, and other related topics.

I feel confident in saying that the future is very bright – and exciting – for HVO and the rehabilitation disciplines! I urge you to keep your eyes out for some innovative changes in the near future. There is no doubt that physical therapists – and other rehabilitation service providers – will continue to play an important part in the future of HVO’s ongoing efforts to provide expert, relevant and innovative partnerships in resource-scarce countries.


  1. The Global Health Special Interest Group within the APTA’s HPA The Catalyst Section is an excellent resource for PTs.

  2. Thank you for your message. HVO does not have any projects in El Salvador, but we do know where to find some general information about global rehabilitation care. In particular, you may be interested in some resources available through the World Health Organization. Visit the Rehabilitation 2030 page on the WHO website. Here, you will find some general information about global efforts and trends in rehabilitation, as well as links to other resources. In particular, you may find the WHO “INCLUDE” learning community helpful. Also, we have some general travel resources on our website that you may find helpful. We wish you well on your March 2018 trip!

  3. In March of 2018 I am traveling to El Salvador for one week to join the medical team through my church. I am the first physical therapist going. Most of the previous teams have been comprised of pharmacists, physician assistants and nurses. We stay in Teotepeque overnight and take several one-day trips to mountain villages providing triage care set up in schools and churches. Any advice where I can look for advice or resources? I have no idea how I can best serve these impoverished people with my skills and knowledge. Can you provide me some direction? Thanks. Maryann Goebel, PT

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