An Italian Physio’s journey to Canada

Alessio Gallina is an Italian physiotherapist enrolled as a PhD candidate in the Rehabilitation Sciences program

This year I was asked to participate in two seminars back home in Italy to talk about my experience as a PhD student in Canada. From the looks and comments of the physios and students in the audience, I realized something I had forgotten in my time here. How incredible can sound the idea of studying in a Physical Therapy department leading research in different rehabilitation fields, or the idea of a physio program taught almost entirely by physiotherapists, where students are not only taught the best evidence, but they hear it from the researchers who lead those studies, or even the idea that physiotherapists can do research, and do it well!
Hi everyone. My name is Alessio Gallina and I am an Italian physiotherapist enrolled as a PhD candidate in the Rehabilitation Sciences program at UBC. Currently I am investigating motor adaptation to pain under the guidance of Dr. Jayne Garland.

When I obtained my BSc in Physiotherapy in 2009 I was curious about the possibility of doing in research in physiotherapy, but I came across a tough reality: in Italy there was little, if any, possibility for a physiotherapist to do research. Shocking, I know! In the whole country -inhabited by almost twice the people who live in Canada- there was only a single physiotherapist with a faculty appointment (associate professor), and no physio- or rehab-specific PhD or research MSc programs. Most courses were, and still are, taught by medical doctors or physiotherapists employed by the Italian national health service, with little or no time dedicated to prepare for classes as far as I know. And, sadly, many colleagues were convinced that “physios don’t do research”.

I was able to start to do research in an engineering lab, first as a part-time volunteer which quickly progressed to a full-time job. The laboratory for Engineering of the Neuromuscular System at the Politecnico di Torino is one of the leading labs for surface electromyography, a technique used to estimate muscle activation and hence relevant for physiotherapy. Through the projects I worked on in that lab I got in touch with physiotherapists doing research in countries such as Canada, Australia, Belgium, etc. I was especially impressed by UBC and Dr. Garland’s research, so I decided to start a PhD in Vancouver. Supported by a Vanier scholarship, I am applying the technical knowledge acquired from engineers to improve our understanding on how motor control changes in the presence of pain. My education also benefited from few months at the Queensland University in Brisbane to work with one of the leading groups in pain adaptation (with the bonus of escaping some of the rainy months of Vancouver!). I also have to say that another great opportunity I had at UBC was the possibility to get involved with studies ran by other labs – either as a researcher or as a participant, there is always something to learn.

Fortunately some changes have occurred since I obtained my BSc in Physiotherapy that make me think that Italian physiotherapy is moving forward. Slowly, of course, but having few more physios employed by universities, an active scientific society, and several people doing their PhD abroad makes me hope that Italy will eventually catch up with countries where physiotherapy is more developed. As an Italian physio, I look up at the Canadian educational and research standards in physiotherapy (and if I practiced here, that would likely apply to clinical practice as well). If Italian academia met those standards, it would be able to contribute to the development of our profession and hopefully result in better care for patients, not only in Italy but around the world. Which is what we all work for, isn’t it? Personally, I will continue to do my best to contribute to health worldwide and to the development of physiotherapy as a science, and to improve physiotherapy education and research in Italy.