Original Research

Do physiotherapists have a role to play in the Sustainable Development Goals? A qualitative exploration

Sholena Narain, Desmond Mathye
South African Journal of Physiotherapy | Vol 75, No 1 | a466 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajp.v75i1.466 | © 2019 Sholena Narain | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 04 June 2018 | Published: 25 April 2019

About the author(s)

Sholena Narain, Department of Physiotherapy, Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, Pretoria, South Africa
Desmond Mathye, Department of Physiotherapy, Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, Pretoria, South Africa


Background: While physiotherapists appear to be ideally positioned as key role players in achieving the health- and education–related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), few studies have examined the complete scope of physiotherapy practice in addressing the SDGS. Considering the broad scope of physiotherapy practice, physiotherapists are a valuable resource that the South African government can utilise to address their workforce shortages in achieving inclusive primary education, promoting gender equality, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, and combating HIV and AIDS, and other diseases.

Objectives: The aim of this study was to understand the roles of physiotherapists in the SDGs.

Method: A qualitative, exploratory and descriptive approach was used. Semi-structured telephonic and Skype interviews were utilised to collect data from nine physiotherapists with PhDs working in academic institutions. Data were transcribed verbatim by the first author and verified by the second author. Data were entered into NVivo® Version 10. An inductive approach to qualitative data analysis was used. In vivo and open coding was used to generate codes and themes.

Results: The following roles were highlighted: (1) address HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis and other chronic diseases of lifestyle; (2) improve maternal health; (3) reduce child mortality; (4) empower women and (5) achieve inclusive education for children, especially children with disabilities.

Conclusions: Physiotherapists are well suited to address the SDGs of promoting gender equality and empowering women, reducing child mortality rates, improving maternal health, achieving inclusive primary education and combating HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis and other chronic diseases of lifestyle. Physiotherapists have a valuable role in addressing the quadruple burden of disease in South Africa and assisting the government with the current health resource crisis.

Clinical implications: The results of this study will assist to move patient management from a more curative approach to health promotion and prevention. In addition, this study highlights the valuable role of physiotherapists in assisting and supporting the development agenda for ‘Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’.


physiotherapy; sustainable development goals ; maternal health; child mortality; HIV and AIDS; inclusive primary education; chronic diseases of lifestyle


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