What does an ICU Physiotherapist do?

23/Jun/2020     Health

Did you know physiotherapists play a vital role in the care of and rehabilitation of patients in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU)? We sit down with Mater Physiotherapist Felicity to find out more about her role in the ICU.

“It is not commonly known that intensive care patients require physiotherapy, or more specifically what a cardio-respiratory physiotherapist actually does. To work in the Mater ICU, we require training and experience across many clinical areas including surgical, respiratory, obstetrics, orthopaedics and general medicine.

Felicity explains.

“We review all patients as soon as they come into the ICU. One of the biggest misconceptions is we cannot help people who are on ventilators, in fact we do a lot of work with patients while they are critically unwell. Their rehabilitation starts from Day one of being in the ICU.

“We aim to have a patient only lightly sedated while on a ventilator, so that we can begin their early mobility, including sitting on the edge of the bed, or standing. This will maintain the strength in their muscles and improve their ventilation.

Felicity explains that over the past decade there has been a great deal of research to support the concept of early mobility, led by physiotherapists, improving health outcomes for ICU patients’ long term.

“We certainly don’t leave a patient lying in a bed, we are hands on and we can give them exercises to do while both in and out of the bed. We know the faster we can have a patient moving the easier their rehabilitation will be,” she said.

“Physiotherapists collaborate with doctors to improve not only a patients muscle strength but their respiratory capability as well. We can give patients breathing exercises to help with lung capacity.

“If a patient came to the ICU with an illness like pneumonia and their lungs were heavily congested, a physiotherapist will help them to clear their lungs using various techniques.”

She says it’s not the most glamourous part of the job, suctioning out phlegm, but the most rewarding as they know they’re making a patient feel so much more comfortable.  

“The physiotherapy team will also collaborate with both nursing and other allied health teams on a regular basis. We can assist a patient connect in with an occupational therapist or speech pathologist if we feel they need extra support,” Felicity said.

Felicity and her colleagues Anne Leditschke, Jenny Murphy and Judy Hough are also part of research initiatives with Mater Research exploring the benefits of early mobility in ICU patients.

“We have received a grant to explore patients’ lung capacity using electrical impedance tomography (EIT) which will analyse a patient’s lung dynamics while ventilated and sitting or standing,” Felicity said.

“This will give us a greater understanding of a patient’s lung capacity while they are in ICU and how it improves through regular physiotherapy interventions.”

The final part of Felicity’s role has been her completion of a SIM Fellowship with Mater Education, which was funded by Mater Foundation, where she created simulation training activities for nurses, interns and other physiotherapists.

“The role of a physiotherapist in the ICU is pretty dynamic and hands on. I am lucky enough to work in the research, education and clinical space,” Felicity said.

“Physiotherapists play a vital role in the treatment and rehabilitation of our patients and it’s very rewarding to see them improve and get back home safely” 

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