Media Release: Our Overlooked Experts In COVID Recovery

Tuesday 8 September is World Physiotherapy Day with this year’s theme highlighting physiotherapy’s vital but often unacknowledged role in recovery from COVID-19.


7 September 2020

Our Overlooked Experts In COVID Recovery

Expert cardio-respiratory physiotherapists are playing a vital – but often unacknowledged – role in providing skilled hospital care for New Zealanders who have COVID-19 – and with their ongoing recovery.

Cardio-respiratory physiotherapists are working in hospital Emergency Departments, ICU, acute and rehabilitation wards. They are fully involved in the acute care of patients admitted to hospital with COVID-19 symptoms and help with their breathing and their rehabilitation needs.

“These highly trained physiotherapists are experts in optimisation of the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, and this is never more relevant than in the intensive care unit. They are a vital part of healthcare teams on the front line, says Physiotherapy New Zealand (PNZ) Cardio-Respiratory Special Interest Group Secretary Sarah Rhodes.

“The cardio-respiratory physiotherapist is often underacknowledged as a health care professional, yet they are a critical cog in the healthcare wheel in the current crisis. At a time when many are physically distancing, they are the ones getting up close, helping patients to manage the burden of their increased effort to breathe, encouraging patients to clear secretions from their lungs and liaising with the wider team to ensure patients’ oxygen demands are met.”

Sarah says these experts’ extensive knowledge of respiratory anatomy and pathology ensures New Zealanders who have contracted the COVID-19 virus receive the best possible care while the patient is on a ventilator, or being weaned off it.

“Cardio-respiratory physiotherapists also provide essential rehabilitation for post COVID-19 patients, once they are discharged from hospital, to manage ongoing breathing dysfunction, muscle weakness, cardiovascular compromise and fatigue.

“They’re central to managing fatigue and assisting patients to get back on their feet again. Early identification of rehabilitation targets ensures the chances of full recovery are greatly enhanced.  Only years of training and experience make this possible,” says Sarah.

In the community and outpatient departments cardio-respiratory physiotherapists are also available in-person or via telehealth to help those recovering from COVID-19.

Sarah says people recovering from COVID-19 may find themselves more breathless than usual and have a persistent cough. They can feel more fatigued or weaker than usual, and simply get less done.

“A cardio-respiratory physiotherapist can help manage a patient’s recovery and symptoms, and rehabilitate them to lead a more active lifestyle.”

As PNZ celebrates World Physiotherapy Day (8 September) it is calling on the Government, DHBs and primary health organisations to cut surgery wait times, reduce costs and achieve health outcomes by enabling greater use of physiotherapy across the primary health sector.

New Zealand’s health sector is struggling with a backlog of elective surgery caused by the global pandemic, and PNZ Chief Executive Sandra Kirby says inadequacies in the current model must be addressed by increasing investment in evidence-based, community led non-surgical primary care.

“COVID-19 has provided the health sector with the opportunity to rethink the way health services are delivered, funded and prioritised.

“There is an opportunity to address longstanding structural problems with physiotherapy funding models, support physiotherapy businesses to do good mahi, and optimise population health at a time of unprecedented health loss.

“The current system is operating below par because the health funding model doesn’t fund the most effective treatments for prevalent conditions such as low back pain and osteoarthritis. To achieve better outcomes, what should be happening is that physios are also widely used at the opposite end of the cycle, providing treatment and better health outcomes in primary care.”

Sandra says the evidence for primary care physiotherapy interventions being a cost-effective way of reducing pressure on elective surgery waiting times, as well as improving health outcomes for people is overwhelming.

“We believe the Government needs to invest a small proportion of the Vote Health funding allocated in the Budget for primary care physiotherapy. In the short term, that would enable physios to help clear the COVID backlog in the health system. And, in the long term, if the Government wants the most effective use of health spend then cost-effective physiotherapy could improve health outcomes, reduce costs and support the overall performance of the health system.”

“As long as allied health solutions such as physiotherapy remain underrepresented in PHO governance structures, we will not achieve the best outcomes for New Zealanders.”


Page updated September 2020