Narrative histories of physiotherapy in Colombia, Ecuador, and Argentina

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Physiotherapy Theory and Practice


Background: The history of physiotherapy in Latin America has received little attention thus far in the English-speaking literature. In this paper, we draw on narratives from activists, educators, and professional leaders who have been instrumental in shaping the development of physiotherapy in Argentina, Colombia, and Ecuador. Physiotherapists in the Latin American countries faced many similar challenges, including developing physiotherapy in the shadow of medicine, overcoming conservative attitudes toward women professionals, and frequent social upheaval. Aims: The paper explores the disputed story of physiotherapy’s origins in the polio epidemics, the influence of Swedish remedial gymnastics, and the educational colonialism of North American and European educators. We examine some of the effects of social unrest and trauma, military rule, and economic instability on the professions attempts to establish itself in the face of competition from other professions allied to medicine. And we consider the efforts taken to establish the profession’s autonomy and its shifting relationship with the state. Methods: We employed two different methods for data collection to explore aspects of physiotherapy’s history in Latin America from a political and socio-cultural context: 1) A reconstruction of memories from activist physiotherapists in Colombia, Ecuador, and Argentina, who have seen, lived, and promoted the development of physiotherapy in their own countries, gleaned from in-depth interviews; and 2) Analysis of secondary sources. Data were analyzed following the method described by Maynes, Pierce, and Laslett (2008), exploring personal narratives. Textual data were analyzed using documentary research (Prior, 2003) using thematic analysis, to inductively discover, and describe relevant themes about the two main guiding study questions. A constant comparative method as outlined by Boeije (2002) was used to form categories, establish boundaries, and discerning conceptual similarities between participants’ narrative. Results: Five physiotherapists were interviewed. One from Colombia, two from Argentina and two from Ecuador. Three main themes were identified: ‘A Female Profession?’, ‘training and education’, and ‘Present Day in Argentina, Ecuador, and Colombia’. Tensions between the interests of the State, professionals, patients, cultures, urban and rural services, and practices are prevalent throughout physiotherapy in Argentina, Colombia, and Ecuador. Operating within these tensions is very much the reality for physiotherapists in Latin America today. Conclusion: Multiple histories emerge from the research, opening up a space for a more nuanced, polyphonic reading of physiotherapy in Colombia, Ecuador, and Argentina than has been heard to date.

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