As a child, Conran Joseph used to fantasise about being a physiotherapist standing on the side of a sports field. Then, as a promising cricket player at high school, he was injured and ended up receiving treatment from a physiotherapist.
This first-hand encounter with the profession was a life-changing experience. "I realised that being a sportsperson is very risky; the stakes are quite high," he recalls. "And, given the extent and type of my injuries, I thought: being a physiotherapist will keep me close to the sporting arena."
Today, Associate Professor Joseph is Head of the Division of Physiotherapy in the Department of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at Stellenbosch University's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.
His journey in academia started at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), where he enrolled for a Bachelor of Science degree in physiotherapy in 2005: "That was the starting point for me to realise I wanted to be in academia," he says. “I held my lecturers in high regard because of their passion for the profession and cognisance of the importance of physiotherapy as a vehicle to address health and wellbeing issues in our nation.
"And once I understood the physiotherapy programme, I realised how essential and specialised movement is and I became aware of the capabilities of the human body to recover from disease and injury. I became completely fascinated by the scientific premise and evidence base underlying physiotherapy."
After he graduated in 2008, Joseph did his community service at the TC Newman Community Health Centre in Paarl, where seeing patients with strokes, traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries ignited his interest in adult neurology: "It shook me a bit, treating people who were my age, while recognising the limitations of the healthcare system.
"I thought: this is what I want to do – make a small contribution to understanding the nuances of rehabilitation in our context, and helping people to regain their ability to engage in activities and roles central to their lives."
In 2010, Joseph became an associate lecturer at UWC and went on to complete a Master's degree in physiotherapy there in 2012. Four years later, he completed a doctorate in Medical Science at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, on spinal cord injuries.
He became a lecturer at UWC in 2016, where he stayed until he joined Stellenbosch University in January, initially to teach neurology. When the position of Head of the Division became available, he applied: "It is a wonderful opportunity, and I was lucky to be successful."
Joseph was confronted almost immediately by the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic: "We have made a lot of changes in how we deliver the programme at the moment. We are still trying to figure out how to continue providing students with a transformative learning experience, albeit via virtual means.
"Yet in all these situations we think are so overtly negative, there are always good stories and lessons to be learnt. So the idea is to have staff reflect on the changes we were required to make and identify which lessons we can take forward in the future."
At the same time, Joseph is implementing some of the plans he inherited. "Many of our programmes are currently undergoing a process of curriculum renewal," he explains. "I will see that these are implemented."
However, he adds, his team will ensure that their programme will reflect "our current context, our current stories, our current healthcare system, so that our graduates can be social assets. So that what we teach is actually what our students then go out to experience and manage once they are graduates – they must be enquiry-focused as well as reflective and empathetic in their approach."
Joseph is brimming with other ideas as well: "Another interest of mine is around cultural competence. We can only be critical and reflective, and demonstrate empathy, if we are culturally sensitised and consciously engage in cultural encounters. In South Africa, we are very fortunate to be as diverse as we are, but we need to use that as a tool to promote transformative learning and equip students with the necessary skills and attitudes.
"That is high on the agenda of Stellenbosch University. In line with what I need to do, and discuss with powers higher up, is how we balance the diversity profile at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. I see the representation of our diversity as a social responsibility, but also as an asset in terms of promoting a culture of transformative learning.
"We come from diverse backgrounds, with our own belief systems and values and societal norms. Once we tap into these kinds of resources in each and every person, only then can we try to help instil an appreciation of others, an appreciation of multiple perspectives. That is what I would like to see more of, that we truly embrace patient-centred care."
Joseph contends there is currently a mismatch between the perspectives of the physiotherapist – trained in evidence-based Western medicine – and the worldview of patients. "Hence we need to learn skills of cultural competence in order to act in an empathetic way," he stresses. "That is the driving force in delivering patient-centred care."
Joseph is clearly passionate about his field. "Physiotherapy is not seen as an essential service," he points out. "It's almost [regarded as] a luxury. As advocates of the profession, we should raise awareness of the role of physiotherapy and its contribution to improving people's health."