Is Physiotherapy a Luxury? What Can the Perplexing Absence of the Physical Therapies Tell Us About the Profession’s Future?
Physiotherapists interested in the profession's future have turned in recent years to historical evidence to understand how the physical therapies were practiced before the advent of modern healthcare. However, studies to date suggest that their practice was largely confined to social elites, and those from working-class or poor populations rarely, if ever, experienced them. To test this theory further, this study focuses on British sailors during the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815). Utilizing historical and semi-fictional accounts, this study shows that healthcare on board naval fighting ships concentrated almost entirely on the prevention of disease, and the medical and surgical management of acute trauma. Even though sailors experienced shocking levels of traumatic injury, none appear to have experienced any form of physical therapy. This study supports the argument that prior to the 20th century, the physical therapies were luxuries available primarily to those with surplus time and money, and that widespread access to physiotherapy has relied on state-sponsored universal health coverage. It follows, then, that the decline of universalized healthcare may have profound implications for many marginal groups in society, as well as the physiotherapy profession itself.