Therapists for Armenia and AASMC visit the Physical Therapy Department at Armenian State Institute of Physical Culture

YEREVAN — The 2020 Artsakh War placed an overwhelming strain on Armenia’s health system, presenting the challenge of managing thousands of wounded soldiers and displaced civilians during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the focus shifted from the war to rehabilitating the newly disabled, two diaspora organizations teamed up to support Armenian rehabilitation professionals. Together Therapists for Armenia and the Armenian American Sports Medicine Coalition (AASMC) provided clinical and educational support during and after the war through the establishment of a digital resource library, weekly bilingual webinars, multidisciplinary teleconsultation targeting evidence-based assessment and intervention, and a channel through which volunteer rehabilitation professionals could provide direct care and education in both Armenia and Artsakh.

Building on these efforts, the Post-Conflict Rehabilitation Virtual Symposium was held on July 17 and 18, welcoming more than 430 participants from eight countries: Armenia, Artsakh, the United States, Belize, England, Lebanon, Iran and Canada.

Keynote speaker Peter Skelton, PT, MSc from World Health Organization, discusses the role of rehabilitation in emergencies at the Post-Conflict Rehabilitation Virtual Symposium

The symposium was a collaboration between Therapists for Armenia, AASMC, and the International Center for Professional Development, with the goals of stimulating interdisciplinary collaboration, addressing identified challenges related to post-war rehabilitation, facilitating connection with international experts, and bringing awareness to the unique challenges of post-war Armenia and Artsakh. The symposium organizing committee, led by chairwoman Armineh Babikian, invited presenters from various nations and organizations including the World Health Organization, American Physical Therapy Association, Columbia University, University of Toronto and Arabkir Medical Center.

The conference’s first day focused on clinical interventions, with an opening keynote presentation by Peter Skelton of the World Health Organization, who presented on the importance of rehabilitation in emergency and disaster relief. The second day emphasized community reintegration following combat injury with keynote speaker Dr. Michel Landry from Duke University, describing rehabilitation through the continuum of care.

The symposium covered topics such as the impact of traumatic brain injury on visual, motor, and language skills, wound care in low resource settings, peer support for limb loss, and transition to home following spinal cord injury.

There was an overwhelmingly positive response from both participants and speakers.

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“To say the conference was enlightening would be an understatement. We received critical information on how to function effectively as rehabilitation professionals in post-conflict situations and also apply the knowledge to our day-to-day clinical practice. There are not enough symposiums that focus on educating rehabilitation professionals on these topics and the difference it provided was refreshing. Another point to note was the inclusion of all types of rehabilitation professionals, which is crucial as we work as a team to achieve effective patient care,” reported Mona Lesa Lennon, a physiotherapist working in Belize.

Dr. Liana Aghajanyan and Dr. Michel Landry at the rehabilitation center at Arabkir Medical Center

The Post-Conflict Rehabilitation Virtual Symposium was a great example of how international researchers, diasporan organizations and local clinicians can work together to make a strong impact. Speaker Dr. Dawn Nilsen from Columbia University stated, “It was a wonderful opportunity to share ideas and experiences, and to collaborate with rehabilitation specialists from across the globe.”

Many of the speakers learned about Armenia for the first time through this experience and are eager to continue building partnerships with local universities, professional associations, and rehabilitation centers.

For Therapists for Armenia and AASMC, this was the first step in a larger initiative of advancing Armenian rehabilitation as a whole. Founders Armineh Babikian (Therapists for Armenia) and Nicholas Tavoukjian (AASMC) have a combined 11 years of experience within rehabilitation in Armenia and Artsakh. AASMC and Therapists for Armenia have helped recruit more than 60 healthcare professionals to travel to and volunteer in Armenia and Artsakh, including Babikian and Tavoukjian themselves who traveled to Armenia in July to spread awareness of their efforts and continue to build on partnerships.

“We met with the Ministry of Health, Office of the High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs, World Health Organization Regional Office, National Institute of Health, local rehabilitation centers and universities. A common theme we encountered throughout the meetings was that rehabilitation is a crucial component of the nation’s recovery following the war, as it can help individuals regain quality of life and return to work and family duties,” stated Babikian. Given the current phase Armenia and Artsakh are in, rehabilitation and global health experts have expressed that an investment in education and workforce capacity building must be a priority, especially for preparedness in the case of future conflict, emergency, or disaster.

Therapists for Armenia and AASMC meeting with National Institute of Health (NIH) in Yerevan

During the past year, Therapists for Armenia and AASMC have been co-developing an Interdisciplinary Rehabilitation Fellowship for Armenia (IRFA), planned to pilot in January 2022. As Tavoukjian explained: “This initiative is designed to scale-up clinical and higher education competencies to impact service delivery, promote leadership, and strengthen the overall capacity of the rehabilitation workforce in Armenia and Artsakh. Together, with partners from the Ministry of Health, National Institute of Health, Polaris EduCorps, and the IDeA Foundation-UCLA Health-Philips Consortium, the IRFA can deliver a solution based on local priorities, while also aligning with standards set forth by the World Health Organization for strengthening rehabilitation within a health system.”

The fellowship will utilize a train-the-trainer model to build workforce capacity and train rehabilitation clinicians in research, ethics, teaching and adult learning theory, leadership, policy, and entrepreneurship. This program will enhance rehabilitation education in Armenia and Artsakh, and provide valuable skills to sustainably develop rehabilitation in the years to come.

With the new national priority of addressing the needs of the growing population of Armenians with disabilities, Therapists for Armenia and the Armenian American Sports Medicine Coalition are dedicated to advancing Armenian rehabilitation through collaboration and co-creation of solutions with local colleagues. The symposium and fellowship are the building blocks of a long-term vision. Active engagement from the diaspora, co-development with local experts, and guidance from international organizations can not only strengthen the field, but support Armenia in becoming a regional leader in rehabilitation.

To help further this effort, those interested can donate to Therapists for Armenia or AASMC.


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