URI physical therapy students attend global conference

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Jennifer Audette says conference examined physical therapy challenges worldwide

KINGSTON, R.I. – July 1, 2015 – Marissa Smyrski spent a week at Duke University recently figuring out ways to help victims of the earthquake in Nepal and encourage women worldwide to seek medical help for incontinence.

Her findings will never actually make their way to the countries, but the five-day conference was a great learning experience that has inspired her to consider looking for work overseas after she graduates.

“I am definitely considering it,” says Smyrski, of Ira, Vt., who will graduate with a doctorate in physical therapy in 2017. “I never imagined when I first came to URI that I would think about working abroad, so it’s exciting.”

Smyrski is one of six students who attended the Global Health Institute for Physical Therapy students from June 22 through 26 at Duke in Durham, N.C. Jennifer Audette, an assistant professor of physical therapy at URI, accompanied the students and gave a talk about her work in Haiti.

One of the things that made the conference special was that it was developed for students and lecturers from the United States, Canada and Norway, giving URI students a chance to learn about physical therapy and health care issues worldwide.

The keynote speaker was Emma Stokes, president of the World Confederation for Physical Therapy and an associate professor of physiotherapy at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Stokes spoke at URI in 2014 as an International Visiting Scholar in the physical therapy program.

“For me, it was great to get some insight into global health care issues,” says Smyrski. “It was also wonderful to talk to physical therapists from other countries. That’s so important today. We need to see what else is going on in the world so we can lend a hand, if needed.”

The other students who went were: Anna Skaggs of Baldwin City, Kan.; Leanne Wilson; Lucia Lee of East Greenwich; Lisa Portis of Urbana, Ill.; and Kendra Kohanski of Glocester.

The students split into groups and were asked to come up with solutions for various health-related problems. In one group, students brainstormed about ways to encourage early mobility for children with disabilities in Ukraine. Another challenge involved urging women in developing countries who are ashamed of their incontinence to seek medical help. Students also came up with a strategy to help victims of the devastating earthquake in Nepal.

Portis also appreciated learning about worldwide health issues involving physical therapy. “PT is really growing globally now,” says Portis. “A lot of lower- and middle-income countries don’t have physical therapy schools, so we’re trying to develop awareness about how crucial it is to have these programs.”

In the United States, she says, physical therapy programs started after World War I, but many developing countries are still far behind. That’s unfortunate, says Portis, because “once a medical problem is fixed, we teach people how to get back to their daily lives and daily function.”

Skaggs says that one day she would also like to work in another country. Working in a country after a natural disaster like an earthquake is something she might consider in the future.

“The conference was wonderful,” she says. “It was great to hear what physical therapists are doing, and are capable of doing, around the world. It was also great to collaborate with people and make lifelong connections.”

The conference springs from Duke’s longtime collaboration with Bergen University College in Norway and a Norwegian program that promotes higher education partnerships in the United States and Canada.

“The conference gave students a terrific opportunity to network with international students and take on global health care challenges involving physical therapy,” says Audette. “It was a great learning experience which, we hope, will inspire our students to tackle pressing, and sometimes very complicated, rehabilitation issues in other countries.”

URI offers a three-year professional doctorate in physical therapy. For information, visit http://web.uri.edu/physical-therapy.

Pictured above: left to right, Leanne Wilson; Anna Skaggs; Marissa Smyrski; Jennifer Audette, assistant professor of physical therapy at the University of Rhode Island; Lucia Lee; Lisa Portis; and Kendra-Lynn Kohanski.

Photo courtesy of Marissa Smyrski.