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Original Research

Towards understanding the availability of physiotherapy services in rural Australia

Submitted: 8 August 2015
Revised: 6 March 2016
Accepted: 12 May 2016
Published: 13 June 2016

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Author(s) : Adams R, Jones A, Lefmann S, Sheppard L.

Citation: Adams R, Jones A, Lefmann S, Sheppard L.  Towards understanding the availability of physiotherapy services in rural Australia. Rural and Remote Health (Internet) 2016; 16: 3686. Available: (Accessed 17 October 2017)


Introduction:  A recent exploration of factors affecting rural physiotherapy service provision revealed considerable variation in services available between communities of the study. Multiple factors combined to influence local service provision, including macro level policy and funding decisions, service priorities and fiscal constraints of regional health services and capacity and capabilities at the physiotherapy service level. The aim of this article is to describe the variation in local service provision, the factors influencing service provision and the impact on availability of physiotherapy services.
Methods:  A priority-sequence mixed methods design structured the collection and integration of qualitative and quantitative data. The investigation area, a large part of one Australian state, was selected for the number of physiotherapy services and feasibility of conducting site visits. Stratified purposive sampling permitted exploration of rural physiotherapy with subgroups of interest, including physiotherapists, their colleagues, managers, and other key decision makers. Participant recruitment commenced with public sector physiotherapists and progressed to include private practitioners, team colleagues and managers. Surveys were mailed to key physiotherapy contacts in each public sector service in the area for distribution to physiotherapists, their colleagues and managers within their facility. Private physiotherapist principals working in the same communities were invited by the researcher to complete the physiotherapy survey. The survey collected demographic data, rural experience, work setting and number of colleagues, services provided, perspectives on factors influencing service provision and decisions about service provision. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with consenting physiotherapists and other key decision makers identified by local physiotherapists. Quantitative survey data were recorded in spreadsheets and analysed using descriptive statistics. Interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim, with transcripts provided to participants for review. Open-ended survey questions and interview transcripts were analysed thematically.
Results:  Surveys were received from 11/25 (44%) of facilities in the investigation area, with a response rate of 29.4% (16/54) from public sector physiotherapists. A further 18 surveys were received: five from principals of private physiotherapy practices and 13 from colleagues and managers. Nineteen interviews were conducted: with 14 physiotherapists (nine public, five private), four other decision makers and one colleague. Three decision makers declined an interview. The variation in physiotherapy service availability between the 11 communities of this study prompted the researchers to consider how such variation could be reflected. The influential factors that emerged from participant comments included rurality and population, size and funding model of public hospitals, the number of public sector physiotherapists and private practices, and the availability of specialised paediatric and rehabilitation services. The factors described by participants were used to develop a conceptual framework or index of rural physiotherapy availability.
Conclusions:  It is important to make explicit the link between workforce maldistribution, the resultant rural workforce shortages and the implications for local service availability. This study sought to do so by investigating physiotherapy service provision within the rural communities of the investigation area. In doing so, varying levels of availability emerged within local communities. A conceptual framework combining key influencing factors is offered as a way to reflect the availability of physiotherapy services.

Key words: Australia, availability of health services, physiotherapy, rural health services.

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