Thursday 14 December 2017

World leader... Dr Emma Stokes

Being elected to head up an international body is quite an achievement by anyone's standards. But Irish woman Dr Emma Stokes is taking it all in her stride. Here, she talks about her dreams and plans

Emma Stokes believes physiotherapists have an enormous part to play in the overall health of the nation. Photo: David Conachy
Emma Stokes believes physiotherapists have an enormous part to play in the overall health of the nation. Photo: David Conachy

Joy Orpen

When Dr Emma Stokes (48) walks into a crowded room, heads turn. They do so, not just because she is a strikingly good-looking woman, but because she also has the admirable quality of self-assurance, and she has it in spades. That self-confidence is complemented by graciousness and an innate intelligence. So, it should come as no surprise that she is now the head honcho as far as those who knead and coax our damaged bodies back into shape are concerned.

Emma was recently elected president of the World Confederation for Physical Therapy (WCPT). As an associate professor in physiotherapy at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), with 25 years professional experience, she is well qualified to fulfil this prestigious post, representing 350,000 physiotherapists worldwide.

It all began when she was growing up with her sister in Dundrum, Dublin. "My mother sent us to the Dominicans at Muckross Park College, because she liked their attitude to educating women," Emma explains. "I loved school. I was crazy about sport and wanted to become a PE instructor, but there wasn't much work in those days. I was drawn to physiotherapy from a sports perspective."

Emma graduated 25 years ago, and then began working in St James's Hospital in Dublin and was immediately smitten. "I quickly discovered that physiotherapists had the power to change lives," she explains. "Working with someone who has had a stroke, or helping someone who has a broken hip to walk again, can mean the difference between being confined to a nursing home, or living in the comfort and security of your own home."

Emma then got her "dream job" at TCD, lecturing in the physiotherapy department, while carrying out various research projects. Currently, she has rooms in one of the quadrangles on campus. This is where, generally speaking, she resides on weekdays during the academic year. Otherwise, she lives in Denmark, with her partner, Professor John Nolan, who is an endocrinologist heading up the Steno Diabetes Centre in Copenhagen.

She explains how she first came to live on campus.

"In 2005, the Provost asked me to take on the role of junior dean responsible for student discipline. And to do that, you are required to live on campus," Emma says. "It was one of the most professionally rewarding jobs of my career. I think it comes back to something I have always liked doing, working as part of a team."

She says most of the problems were typical of any demographic shaped by exuberant young people, and so were easily resolved; however, there were times when extreme sensitivity was required.

Along the way, Emma did her PhD and then completed a graduate business degree. From the outset, she was a member of the Irish Society of Chartered Physiotherapists (ISCP). In 1998, she attended her first international meeting of the WCPT, and was very impressed. "I knew then that I wanted to be part of the bigger picture," she recalls. Every four years, the world body holds a conference, and Emma would get invited because of her connections to ISCP, or because of her research. In 2011, she was elected as vice-president. She then ran for the presidency in 2015. When the election took place recently in Singapore, it emerged she had canvassed so effectively that she was duly elected.

She says, during her vice-presidency, she signalled her message for change. As president, she intends to follow through on her promise to continue to develop the organisation by "looking in, looking out, and to the future".

"We are moving away from a situation where we are merely managing episodic symptoms and injuries, to one in which we offer preventative healthcare. If somebody presents to the physiotherapist, the conversation these days is going to be bigger than the sore back or the stiff leg," Emma explains.

She believes physiotherapists have an enormous part to play in the overall health of the nation. "I feel physiotherapy is capable of becoming one of the big game-changers, when it comes to improving health," she says with deep conviction.

"We need to tackle the problem of increasingly sedentary lifestyles, advising schools and industry about office and classroom ergonomics, as well as health behaviour change, and exercise."

Emma has already identified areas in which physiotherapy will have an increasingly important role to play. These include grandparents who are involved in the care of young children because professional childcare is too expensive; young adults with hip and knee injuries following over-exercise; and children with injuries in joints and bones because of obesity.

Emma is also quite clear that physiotherapists need to work closely with their clients. "It used to be that they gave you the solution. But we now know we need to engage with our patients in a way that enables them to be actively involved in finding solutions," she says.

This would be achieved by getting the patient to look at the whole picture, Emma explains. For example, what caused the sore knee in the first place? Was there a weight problem involved? Is diet an issue, or lack of exercise? And if so, how can the patient incorporate more exercise or a better diet into their routines? Taking it further, Emma says we need to know what happens when the patient is sedentary. Are they working at a computer, for example, or watching television for long periods of time, in uncomfortable positions?

"The research is now showing we should not be inactive for long periods. In Denmark, they have desks that go up and down, so you can stand or sit while you work at your computer. Companies need to create healthy environments with the right kind of chairs and desks, and staff should be encouraged to move around during working hours." So lifestyle changes are definitely on the cards, if we want to have an improved quality of life.

Finally, Emma urges decision makers to recognise the intrinsic value of physiotherapy. "Our profession has the capability to influence significant cost savings and reduce waiting lists in the healthcare system," concludes the inimitable president.


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