Physio in the spotlight during pandemic

  • Ellen McMaster in front of computer monitors

Ellen McMaster 

Australian Physiotherapy Association

Physiotherapists have played a critical role throughout the pandemic. A large number of physiotherapists were among teams of frontline health workers in Intensive Care Units (ICU) across the country where they played a crucial role in cardiorespiratory interventions and survivor rehabilitation.

As part of the multidisciplinary team in the critical care environment, they assisted patients with respiratory performance, weaning from ventilators and pulmonary rehabilitation. The role of physios in the community has been just as important, particularly in supporting older Australians at risk of life-threatening falls after long-COVID confinement. And, physios play an ongoing role to ensure COVID-19 sufferers return to their pre-COVID lives as quickly as possible.

For rural physiotherapists, professional isolation and resource constraints brought added pressures to service responsiveness. Our members were concerned around their capacity to meet the demand for care should the pandemic take hold in their community. They provided a vital planning role ensuring continuity of care so that patients needing essential rehabilitation still got the care they needed. They made adjustments as services changed to keep people safe, which saw telehealth used for the more vulnerable patients. But this is an experience that has impacted us all, and this is captured beautifully here in a poem by the APA’s Rural Chair, Ellen McMaster.

Early in the pandemic, the Australian Physiotherapy Association  partnered with NSW Health to provide world-class training to physiotherapists on the frontline in the fight against COVID-19. The virtual Cardiorespiratory ICU training provided vital upskilling in the profession. The focus was to ensure physios were well equipped to efficiently wean patients off ventilators and improve patient positioning to optimise oxygenation and patient outcomes. We made this available to the worldwide community with the Cardio ICU course having reached 35 countries with more than 6,000 physiotherapists educated.

A key learning from the pandemic is that despite their training and experience, like all professions, physiotherapists were not fully prepared for this new virus. Online training played a vital role in ensuring upskilling could occur at scale and at pace. While physical borders may have closed, a legacy of COVID-19 is that we kept our virtual ones open and by extension that has meant we’ve kept our hearts open too as we battle this virus together.


By Ellen McMaster
APA Rural Chair

In February of twenty twenty
A new virus hit the news,
We’d seen the like before aplenty
And all had different views.
A new product from China it seems,
So at first we said “Oh dear!”
And then it hit Australian shores,
And the threat it seemed was near.

The unseen plague ripped through some places,
Leaving a trail of death and despair.
A cold or flu that spread so fast,
That left some gasping for air.
Hospitals bursting at the seams,
They showed us on the news.
And the people sickest of all,
Ventilated in the ICU’s.

In ICU’s the teams worked hard,
The doctor, physio and nurse,
The cook, the cleaner, admin and boss,
The driver of the hearse.
The doctors and nurses too did fall,
And still the need increased,
With beds set up in the halls,
The frontline never ceased.

And while the cities writhed in pain,
And battled invisible enemy lines,
The rest of the world prepared to join the ranks,
Locked down and adjusted to the fines.
We washed our hands and stayed apart,
Built our skills for staff in health.
Learned our enemy to contain,
Coped with no toilet paper on the shelf.

And the physios in the bush,
They played their role as well.
They stepped up to train in case,
Our world too resembled hell.
We planned how we all could help,
And did the Physio courses,
While our services changed
To keep people safe. Together we joined forces.

From a person who lives in the bush,
A physio nonetheless,
I’d like to thank the frontline staff,
Who have stepped up to give their best,
The ones behind the scenes who are planning our response,
Those who share their skills to train the guy who fixes backs,
Another thanks to those prepared, ready just in case.
I rest assured we’re ready if it slipped through the cracks.

So when the battle’s over
And we all can let it go,
What will be your travel choice?
Or will you choose to stay at home?
Many innovations forced may be the new “best”
An epic journey it sure has been,
That’s put us to the test,
The undiscriminating virus named COVID-Nineteen.

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