The meaning of rehabilitation: a qualitative study exploring perspectives of occupational therapists and physiotherapists working with older people in acute care

Gemma Bradley*, Katherine Baker, Catherine Bailey

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
23 Downloads (Pure)


Objective: To explore how occupational therapists and physiotherapists constructed and interpreted the meaning of rehabilitation in relation to older people in acute care. Design: A focussed ethnographic study was undertaken, primarily using observation, interviewing and review of clinical records within one acute medical ward in a general hospital in the UK. Five patient participants gave consent for their episode of care to be studied, with observations and interviews primarily involving the identified patients and five occupational therapy and physiotherapy professionals. Results: Four themes were identified: rehabilitation as a process to facilitate physical improvement; rehabilitation as physiotherapy-led; rehabilitation as a place…but not here; and rehabilitation as a process which prioritises safety over function. Such conceptualisations of rehabilitation were recognised as rooted in social and historical perceptions and challenged the ideals of rehabilitation professionals. Conclusions: The meaning of rehabilitation in acute care is shaped by a range of cultural, contextual and systemic influences. Recognising these influences, and subsequent challenges to rehabilitation ideals, can encourage professionals to work towards meaningful change.Implications for Rehabilitation A reductionist version of rehabilitation was evident within this context which placed value on physical improvement, achieving optimum safety and led by physiotherapy. This version of rehabilitation was unsatisfactory to occupational therapists and physiotherapists in this setting and different to their ideals. Where rehabilitation may be associated with another place, practitioners should reflect on whether this is influencing patients becoming a lower priority for interventions whilst waiting and address this, if required, within their own reasoning, prioritisation and delegation. Those who recognise similarities with their own practice context could individually, and within teams, revisit definitions of rehabilitation to notice, document and have conversations about the ideals of their professions versus the reality of practice. Occupational therapists and physiotherapists can be champions for organisational and cultural change to promote rehabilitation as a multi-disciplinary phase of care working towards optimising improvements in wellbeing, function and safety, irrespective of location.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2295-2303
Number of pages9
JournalDisability and Rehabilitation
Issue number16
Early online date4 Dec 2019
Publication statusPublished - 31 Jul 2021


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