Fourteen years ago, Prof Quinette Louw
wrote her own bit of history at Stellenbosch University (SU) when she became
the institution’s first ever associate professor in physiotherapy. In 2010, she
became a full professor – again the first to hold the position. These days, she
is executive head of the Department of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and
the Division of Physiotherapy and in 2018 was appointed as the South African
Research Chair (SARChI) in Innovative Rehabilitation.
Since her student days in the 1990s,
Louw has spent much of her time treating and investigating matters related to different
kinds of musculoskeletal
pain, such as knee, hip or back pain, which peaks when the affected body part
is moved. For her talk as part of the Forward with Research Impact series of
the Division of Research Development, Louw will place the spotlight on back
pain. The public lecture takes place on 13 November at 13:00 at the SU Museum
in Rhyneveld Street, Stellenbosch.
Louw was the only African researcher invited to provide input
and data to a 2018 review series in the medical journal The Lancet about
the global prevalence of back pain. Globally, the occurrence of the condition
has doubled over the past 25 years, at great cost to economies because of work
“The prevalence of back pain is
higher in low-income countries than in high-income ones. We don’t yet fully
understand why this is so,” notes Louw. “Managing the condition remains a
problem. Many approaches are simply not evidence-based.”
She too often sees how patients
are unnecessarily put on long-term medication that has no real effect on their
pain or the causes of their discomfort. For her, the answer more often than not
lies putting into practice transdisciplinary rehabilitation techniques that
focus on the crux of the problem.
All about movement
Louw grew up in in Richmond
in the Northern Cape. At the age of ten, she moved to Cape Town with her
parents, both teachers, and two siblings. In 1991 Louw matriculated from Bishop
Lavis Secondary as one of its star pupils.
Louw did ballet and
contemporary dancing for 13 years of her life and loves the movement at its
heart. On advice from a family friend, she studied towards a BSc in
Physiotherapy at the University of the Western Cape.
“It is all about movement too,”
she summarises the profession in a few words.
After graduating in 1994, she
gained valuable practical experience at a community health centre in Athlone. Louw
describes herself as an “eternal student” and therefore has pursued
postgraduate studies through a master’s degree from the University of South
Australia in 1998. A lectureship at UWC followed, which also provided her with
the opportunity to build up her own private practice and keep honing her
clinical skills. She completed her PhD in 2004, again from the University of
South Australia, by doing most of her research on the biomechanics of knee
injuries in South Africa.
In 2005 she joined Stellenbosch
University as an associate professor with the daunting task of building up the
research profile and postgraduate programme of the Division of Physiotherapy. At
the time, universities’ funding models were changing, with greater emphasis
being placed on research outputs along with teaching and training
responsibilities. The year 2005 also saw the birth of the first of her two
children. Her now teenage son is a gifted classical pianist, and her ten-year old
daughter old is emerging as an avid baker with a talent for designing and decorating
“For the first ten to 12 years of my
career in the Faculty I had to build a research profile. My strategy was to
optimise output that was gained through every investment. For every cent we received we produced an output.
By doing that, we could improve our research outputs, and build strategic
networks with Germany, Ireland and Australian collaborators,” she explains the strategy
that she followed. “When I started, we published one or two papers per year,
but these days it is more in the line of 35 a year. With the new Chair, we might
be able to push it up to 50.
Over the course of fourteen years,
Louw has seen 76 postgraduate students from 15 countries in Africa, the Middle
East, Europe and the US graduate – a most valuable extension to the pool of
expertise in physiotherapy. Of these, four were honoured as the best
postgraduate students in the Faculty in their respective years.
Louw’s office is close to the Biomechanics
Facility in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Science Building on the
Tygerberg campus. The facility was opened in 2008 and has since been used by a multidisciplinary
team of mechatronic and industrial engineers, medical specialists and others
working in the health sector. These days
it is being run as part of the University’s Central Analytical Facility.
Louw thrives on the
challenges and opportunities of working in an academic setting such as that of
the Division of Physiotherapy, and the prospect of learning from her colleagues
and students daily. She sees the value in being ready when opportunity knocks, and
of transdisciplinary collaboration.
“The one thing I have done well is to
be focused on Africa, our local issues and looking for strategies that will
work and are feasible for us,” she believes.
Louw is very realistic about a career
in research: “It takes a long time to get to a place where you have a profile
and are able to research topics that have an impact. And can access substantial
A newspaper clipping on her office
wall tells the story of a project that she hopes will have an impact on the
lifestyle of school children. KUZE is an affordable, adaptable and robust school
desk and chair with many health and social benefits. It allows learners to
either sit or stand and work. It is the result of years of research into good
posture, ergonomics and the influence of sedentary lifestyles by Louw and
fellow SU researchers Dr Sjan-Mari Brown and Dominic Fisher.
Louw says it is “very exciting” to see
research taking shape into something very tangible, to something beyond mere “research
output on a graph”. The prototype was tested in the real-life environment of
schools in Gugulethu and Kensington and it has since been taken up in some schools.
It is not yet available for sale, but
the team has recently decided to invest in commercialisation of the prototype.
A German exchange student is currently studying whether its use could improve
scholars’ concentration levels, which could be a key selling point to get it
into more classrooms. The application for an international patent was submitted in 2018,
thanks to support by Innovus, the SU interaction and innovation company.
In recent years Louw has been involved
in a number of national projects, such as drafting sorely needed national
guidelines for the rehabilitation of stroke patients. These are currently being
put through their paces at Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, before endorsement
by the National Department of Health. The World Health Organisation will apply
some of their methods developed for South Africa for the stroke guideline to
develop minimum packages for rehabilitation for low and middle income
countries. It forms part of the WHO - Rehab 2030 drive that advocates for the
inclusion of rehabilitation as a key health strategy.
When it was announced in 2018, Louw
describes being awarded the SARChI Chair in Innovative Rehabilitation as “the
realisation of a long-term goal and the pinnacle of her career path to date”.
She sees it as acknowledgement that research
into rehabilitation is being taken seriously at institutional, national and
government levels. It also endorses the need for more research into matters
related to rehabilitation, and its uses as a strategic tool to improve the
health of South Africans. The Chair’s endeavours focus on providing scientific
and clinical evidence about the type of transdisciplinary cost-effective
rehabilitation efforts that will improve the functioning of people with different
ailments – from stroke victims to people who have been injured in road
accidents or who suffer from chronic diseases.
Fostering relationships with the
Departments of Health, community groups, non-government organisations and
clinicians is key to Louw’s endeavours to do research that can have the
greatest potential to influence people’s lives. To this end, this member of the
SU Senate since 2006, adds: “Researchers produce research output but to impact
the lives of people you need partners who will use the research output to make