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Robotics redefining education for physiotherapy students

Dr Jooeun Song demonstrates Tyromotion robotic reh
Photo: Dr Jooeun Song demonstrates Tyromotion robotic rehabilitation equipment
Australia’s physiotherapists of the future will soon train with the latest pioneering robotics, virtual reality devices and smart phone-enabled therapy.

The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) is the first university in the nation, and believed to be only the second place in Australia after a private clinic in Melbourne, to use Tyromotion.

Developed in Austria, the suite of robotic-aided virtual-reality rehabilitation devices are revolutionising rehabilitation for children and adults with neurological and orthopaedic injuries.

The upper limb training devices are featured in the university’s new Master of Physiotherapy program launching in 2017. The two-year, graduate-entry degree, which is open to students who have completed bachelor degrees in health, science, exercise and human movement, leads to eligibility for registration as a physiotherapist.

The course is transforming the traditional physiotherapy teaching program, which focuses on the silos of musculoskeletal, cardiorespiratory and neurology systems, to instead cover the lifespan of the patient and clinical settings.

The first cohort of about 50 students will begin the course, which was recently approved for a three-year accreditation, in February.

UTS Physiotherapy Professor Lynley Bradnam, a physiotherapist and neuroscientist, is an expert in dystonia, the third most common neurological movement disorder, and specialises in the use of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation - a non-invasive magnetic technique that stimulates brain tissue and neural pathways.

Professor Bradnam says the physiotherapy program is educating a new generation of physiotherapists for modern practice while also equipping them with the skills and knowledge to mould the future of physiotherapy.

“It’s an innovative and practice-orientated degree using good evidence-based practice and new facilities with cutting-edge technology, so I think it’s going to be a very good place to learn how to be a physiotherapist,” she says.

“We’ve got four rather large pieces of Tyromotion equipment that were imported from Austria and that’s probably our main investment in technology.

“We’ll be teaching the students to use apps and even designing apps in areas like exercise prescription.

“We will also introduce students to tele-rehabilitation - so taking normal physiotherapy knowledge and skills but applying it into that tele-rehab mode.”

Physiotherapists are embracing technology in their practice like never before - from tele-therapy to apps, virtual reality gaming and robotics.

Professor Bradnam says the physiotherapy profession world-wide is integrating and utilising technology - recognising its potential to improve patient treatment.

“We’re very interested in research as a profession and researching our own evidence-base and practising from the evidence, so I think that helps to drive that interest in technology too,” she says.

“When you see some of the evidence coming out showing that these things work, the first thing we do is say - ‘oh, we want to get our hands on that!’

“Physiotherapists want to help our patients get better, faster, so that always drives the desire to keep up with the latest things that may improve our efficacy and our output.

“What we want is for our graduates to go out having seen technology and having used technology rather than training on perhaps things that aren’t quite so up-to-date and then going out and seeing them for the first time when they are out in clinical practice.”

The arm and shoulder rehabilitation Tyromotion device, named Diego, enables patients to experience and feel motion in virtual reality.

Professor Bradnam says the intelligent gravity weighted sling system controls the arm around the shoulder.

“Sometimes after stroke people might go to use their hand a bit but if they can’t reach out because the shoulder muscles are paralysed then it’s not much good to them,” she says.

“This device supports the shoulder so you can do functional activities with the hand and that one actually has virtual reality - so you can have people swimming in a pool having to move both arms and the little computer program captures the movements as if you were actually in the pool.

“It helps to engage the patient in a kind of real world activity that has meaning to a patient rather than just playing a game.”

Some of the university’s other Tyromotion pieces include Amadeo - a robotic and computer-assisted therapy device for fingers and hands, and Tymo - a wireless, sensor-based moveable balance therapy board.

As well as enabling students to get their hands on the latest equipment, Professor Bradnam says the university hopes to eventually expand the use of the equipment, enabling academics to embark on research and for clinicians to use it in rehabilitation with their patients.

“We’re trying to think of ways we can share the equipment - we are hoping to have a clinic eventually,” she says.

“It might be that some of the clinical partners can bring patients in and use the equipment because really to just have it as a teaching facility it’s just kind of a waste of all that wonderful technology so - watch this space.”

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