Our University has contributed to a United Nations debate on the ethical issues faced by physiotherapists globally in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr John Stephens, Senior Lecturer in Physiotherapy, was among an invited panel of representatives from Canada, Egypt, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Australia, to be part of a webinar series organised by UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation).

The international webinars were launched to gain a better understanding of the impact of COVID, through sharing ideas and approaches in the response to the challenges and opportunities presented. The COVID-19 pandemic has placed unprecedented demand on healthcare services and organisations, highlighting ethical issues in the delivery of healthcare and healthcare education across the globe.

Chaired by Dr Russell D’Souza, UNESCO Chair in Bioethics, each webinar was streamed via Zoom and YouTube with up to 1,500 participants at each session. The most recent took place this month and focused on physiotherapy.

Dr Stephens said: “As a University, we were delighted to be invited and represented on such a prestigious panel of global experts in their field, reflecting the growing stature and reputation of the University of Sunderland.”

Sunderland launched its new BSc (Hons) in Physiotherapy degree programme last year – part of a multi-million pound investment supporting a suite of physiotherapy, occupational therapy, sport, exercise and rehabilitation laboratories on campus. The programme welcomed its first intake of students in September 2019.

Dr Stephens said: “Whilst working in very unusual times, physiotherapists still assess, treat, and manage caseloads across a broad range of settings informed by the best available evidence and under a very different set of conditions, in altered working environments and new teams.

“With resources often stretched to capacity and beyond, a wide range of ethical considerations are raised for both those receiving care and those providing it. Although there has commonly been a focus on emergency services and critical care surrounding items such as the provision of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and access to services there are broad and profound impacts on the physiotherapy profession related to areas such as rehabilitation, palliative care, education, and the use of technology, to name a small number.”

The webinar’s short presentations by each panel member revealed common ground across many parts of the globe, highlighting similarities of challenges and opportunities for innovation within a pragmatic framework.

Key topic areas included ethical dilemmas in the provision of PPE, access to services (particularly for people with Long Term Conditions e.g. heart disease, lung conditions, cancer services), staff wellbeing, government and professional body policy, education for pre-registration students, employment, professional leadership, inequalities in health including Black and Minority Ethnic Groups (and the impact of COVID), and the influence of rapidly developing technology. Opportunities were taken in the sharing of evidence and policies as well as discussion points in addressing topic areas.

Key themes from the two webinars were based around interconnectivity and interdependence in physiotherapy, healthcare services and education, dealing with uncertainty, and leadership in a period of rapid change.

UNESCO established a Chair in Bioethics in 2001 to coordinate and stimulate an International Network of Institutes for Medical Ethics Training (NIMED), associating higher education institutes in both the developed and developing countries.  A series of webinars, organised by UNESCO, have been held across the pandemic period in order to gain a better understanding of the impact of COVID through sharing ideas and approaches in the response to the challenges and opportunities presented.