Giving back leads to APA’s highest honour for duo

Barbie Singer and Michael Ryan are named the APA's new Honoured Members.

Giving back leads to APA’s highest honour for duo

Barbie Singer and Michael Ryan are named the APA's new Honoured Members.

Michael Ryan and Barby Singer are the two newest names added to the APA’s Honoured Member board. And both share a philosophy of being part of the change that they want to happen.


Sometimes it has been out of self-described ‘sheer bloody-minded aspiration and determination’. 

At other times it has been through the insistence or encouragement of peers and colleagues. 

Regardless of how Michael Ryan FACP has climbed the ranks of the physiotherapy profession, his journey continues to be on an upward trajectory. 

From a young man schooled in giving back to his community to a graduate physiotherapist aspiring to specialisation, Michael says he has always been one to roll up his sleeves and get involved.

‘Right from my undergraduate days, I wanted to be pretty much where I am now. 

'I was aware that there was this distinguished group of physiotherapy luminaries who were specialists. 

'I didn’t have a great understanding of the process of becoming a specialist but that’s what I wanted to be and I wanted to work in musculoskeletal private practice as a specialist. 

'So I started working towards that,’ Michael says.

While Michael was playing elite-level basketball in high school in Sydney, teammate Matt Jennings, a year older than Michael, started a physiotherapy degree. 

Michael thought it sounded like a career that could tick every box. 

Michael Ryan
Michael Ryan

This impression was cemented when Michael joined Sydney physiotherapist and future mentor David Young APAM MACP for a week of work experience. 

Afterwards, he immediately applied to study physiotherapy at the University of Sydney and was accepted.

‘Although I didn’t enter the course with a sense of fulfilling a lifelong dream, as soon as I started studying physiotherapy I realised that it was exactly what I wanted to do. I absolutely loved it. 

'That was over 30 years ago and since then I’ve deepened my love and enjoyment of this career,’ Michael says.

‘Patients come to us and they’re better or more satisfied when they leave. They’re happier. 

'We help people and make a real difference. 

'When I get up in the morning I grumble like everybody else but then you’ve got a day ahead where you get to help people.’

Becoming an APA member in 1994 as a new graduate, Michael started out on rotation at Westmead Hospital.

He worked a variety of day and night shifts, cycling through the various wards, including outpatients and cardiorespiratory, and working with multi-trauma orthopaedic and amputee patients in the rehabilitation gym.

He also hit the road and travelled to Goulburn Base Hospital on rotation, including heading out to Crookwell District Hospital two days each week, where he was the sole physiotherapist while at that hospital. 

Michael stayed on at Westmead for another year as a junior and notes his good fortune in meeting senior physiotherapist Rebecca Lee APAM there. 

Rebecca encouraged young Michael to join what was then the New South Wales-based Manual Therapy special interest group of the APA.

‘I had no idea why she wanted me to be involved and I voiced my concern that I had very little to offer. 

'Rebecca said the group would benefit from a younger physio’s perspective on things,’ Michael says. 

‘So I went along, feeling entirely out of my depth, and muddled my way through. 

'I ended up becoming the treasurer and at every meeting I signed cheques because we had a very different governance structure then.’

That voluntary position became the first in an unbroken chain of involvement with the APA and committees that has spanned some 30 years. 

While growing his career as a clinician and educator, Michael concurrently volunteered on a growing list of committees and groups. 

Giving back to the physiotherapy community as he was learning from it, he says, was a quality instilled in him by his parents, Jennie and Stan Ryan, both school principals (now retired) who were actively involved in their local community.

‘I grew up in a family where there was a significant expectation that you would give back. You would volunteer; you would do things; you would be involved. 

'If you wanted to make change, then you had to be that change. That was the example my parents provided. 

'I believe that if you’re going to take something from a profession, group, sporting body, council or local community, then you put in; you don’t just take.’

While continuing his role at Westmead Hospital, Michael also began working part-time in a private practice in North Ryde, Sydney. 

That morphed into a full-time job and Michael discovered his passion for musculoskeletal physiotherapy, particularly in the field of back pain. 

Becoming an APA Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist was always on the cards for Michael.

‘The burden of back pain, neck pain and chronic pain is huge, at both an individual and a social level. 

'I felt it was an area of practice where you could really help people. 

'Rather than just being there while somebody gets better, you’re directly contributing. 

'That area of chronic pain—unremitting pain, pain that affects people’s entire lives—fascinates me, particularly back pain and neck pain.

‘For me, titling was a given, only it wasn’t called titling when I did it. 

'The physios who were my professional heroes were all manipulative physiotherapists, members of the then Manipulative Physiotherapists Association of Australia. 

'They’d all done their graduate diploma, which by the time I did it was a master’s degree at the University of Sydney. 

'My mentors were titled and I wanted to be titled. So there was never a question as to whether I would do it; it was a natural progression.’

Michael became an APA Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist in 2000 and was involved in the New South Wales branch of the APA Musculoskeletal group and then the group’s national committee, which he eventually chaired.

It was then that he pursued specialisation. In the mid-2000s, when Michael took it on, specialisation was relatively new and markedly different from what it is today. 

In addition to his own aspirations, he felt a level of responsibility to put his hand up and go through this ‘new process of specialisation’ as national chair of the Musculoskeletal group.

‘I was aware that the profession was maturing and developing.

'I saw the benefit of having a group of physios within the profession who (more internally at that stage than externally) could be seen to have a deep and developed skill set in a smaller area of practice and to whom other physios could refer for opinion and more niche specialist care,’ Michael says.

‘I also felt strongly that a burgeoning group of specialists, across disciplines, would provide us with increased validity in the medical and third-party payer landscape and would act as a viable referral source for patients with challenging presentations.’

After becoming a Specialist Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist (as awarded by the Australian College of Physiotherapists in 2007), Michael continued working in his practice in North Ryde. 

He served on the APA Board of Directors from 2008 to 2012 and taught in the Master of Health Science (Manipulative Physiotherapy) course at the University of Sydney for many years as a clinical educator and examiner. 

From 2007 to 2009, Michael volunteered internationally as Australia’s delegate to the International Federation of Orthopaedic Manipulative Physical Therapists. 

He was involved with the NSW Physiotherapy Council from the early 2000s and acted as its president between 2015 and 2018.

Michael has also had a longstanding association with the Australian College of Physiotherapists

He was elected its president in 2014 and served two terms.

As president, Michael worked tirelessly to establish a contemporary career pathway to suit the changing health landscape. 

He navigated the relationship between the APA and the College sensitively, ensuring the sustainability of the College while not compromising its values of educational and clinical excellence. 

Michael has continued his involvement with the College, currently chairing the Appeals, Complaints and Grievances standing committee.

‘I completed my Fellowship in 2007 and there were significant changes going on at the College in terms of structure and governance,’ Michael says. 

‘APA Honoured Member Dr Peter Fazey FACP was president at the time and he wanted me to join the College Council. 

'I think he felt that my experience on the APA Board of Directors would be a useful addition to the College leadership team.

‘I was trying to take a break from involvement, having just finished my two terms on the board. But Peter wouldn’t take no for an answer. 

'He nominated me to join the College Council, which I did, and when I went to my first meeting, I was informed that I needed to excuse myself because there was a call for a new president—and Peter had nominated me. 

'So I left the room. When I walked back in, I was president and I then chaired the meeting.’

Since 2009, Michael has run his practice, Sydney Specialist Physiotherapy Centre, in the heart of Sydney. 

He enjoys his clinical work, helping patients with challenging, complex conditions and problem-solving to create better outcomes for them.

‘Literally every day, with pretty much every patient, you get some sort of immediate feedback that you’re making a difference.

'It might be a dramatic reduction in pain or improvement in functional capacity. 

'Sometimes it’s simply (but importantly) helping a patient understand their problem or establishing expectations. 

'It’s a very rewarding way to make a living,’ Michael says.

In addition to professional leadership, Michael’s scope of knowledge is reflected in the wide range of clinical, consultative and academic roles he has assumed, including consulting for the WorkCover Authority of New South Wales, providing opinions in medicolegal cases, teaching postgraduate courses and mentoring
master’s and specialisation registrars. 

He continues to be active beyond his clinical consultancy.

Michael is grateful to the many mentors and peers who have supported him along the way. 

As well as Rebecca Lee, Peter Fazey and David Young, he mentions Marcus Dripps APAM, Dr Darren Rivett and, in particular, ‘career-long mentor and friend Gaetano Milazzo APAM, to whom I am indeed indebted’.

‘I don’t want to sound falsely humble, but my story’s no different from that of countless other physios. 

'There are plenty of people out there who have done more than me, people who have absolutely dedicated their lives to this profession, whether as teachers, clinicians, mentors or researchers. 

'I think my experiences reflect a lot of people’s journeys.’


The onset of adolescent idiopathic scoliosis when she was a young girl in New Zealand exposed Professor Barby Singer FACP to the world of physiotherapy. 

Turning up for regular treatments with a physiotherapist in the gym at the local hospital, Barby watched in amazement as people with a range of conditions got better, began walking again and returned to normal activities. 

It was a game changer for Barby, who was mesmerised by what physiotherapists could achieve.

‘I saw stroke patients being rehabilitated, people with amputations, people doing exercises after a knee replacement; they were all there in this one physiotherapy gym. 

'And I thought “This is a really interesting profession”,’ Barby says. 

‘So, when I left school I was accepted for both physiotherapy and teaching. 

'I tossed a coin and it landed on physiotherapy and I’m very pleased it did. 

'I don’t think I would have had the patience to be a primary school teacher.’

That Barby has essentially come full circle and has taken on a teaching role later in her physiotherapy career, at the University of Western Australia and later at Edith Cowan University, is a source of amusement to her. 

She is grateful to the many teachers she has had along her own career journey and is a passionate believer in the power of education and in physiotherapists as educators.

‘I was born in New Zealand and did my physiotherapy qualification there.

'I graduated in 1980 and at that time Janet Carr FACP and Roberta Shepherd FACP were publishing their books about motor relearning after stroke. 

'When I trained there was a particular area of neurological rehabilitation, the Bobath approach, which I was taught. 

'It seemed a bit subjective and not very evidence-based.

'And then along came Carr and Shepherd with their wonderful texts about stroke rehabilitation and motor relearning based on scientific principles. 

'For me, they were real trailblazers in the science of neurological rehabilitation,’ Barby says.

Her fascination with neurological physiotherapy continued when she and her husband Kevin moved to Perth for Kevin to undertake two years of postgraduate study in 1984. 

His master’s degree turned into a PhD and the couple decided to settle in Perth.

Barbie Singer
Barbie Singer

In her early career in the west, Barby took up a position at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and she later applied for, and assumed, a senior position working in acute neurosurgery. 

For Barby, it was the start of a deep interest in acquired brain injury. 

At the hospital she was also encouraged to join the APA, signing up in 1989 and immediately getting involved in committee work.

‘Right from the outset I was interested in knowing more about the APA. 

'It’s a very different association from Physiotherapy New Zealand (formerly known as the New Zealand Society
of Physiotherapists). 

'I was the inaugural Western Australian representative on the Quality Assurance Committee, around 1985, at the beginning of the development of the Standards for Physiotherapy Practices. 

'I’ve always been somebody who likes to contribute,’ Barby says.

‘I think if you want change to happen, then you need to be part of that change. 

'That’s the core of my philosophy of volunteering. 

'Right from those early days of being the Western Australian rep on the Quality Assurance Committee, I was involved in the Western Australian branch of the APA Neurology national group and I could see things that could be done differently. 

'I’ve never been someone who thinks you can complain about something and not be part of improving it.’

Barby later enrolled in what was then a graduate diploma in neuroscience at Curtin University, which eventually led her to undertake a master’s and then a PhD. 

Her research interests expanded to include neurological rehabilitation, the management of hypertonia and adaptive muscle shortening, the use of botulinum toxin to achieve balanced muscle function, the transition of young people with chronic health conditions from paediatric to adult health services and the scope of physiotherapy practice.

‘I was working in traumatic brain injury rehab—and sadly it is mostly young men in the 25–40 age range in a traumatic brain injury unit— and I had youngish kids by then; I was working part-time. 

'I got into my 40s and I thought, “I’m not going to be doing this for another 20 years. I need to have another string to my bow.” 

'So in 2004 I enrolled in a PhD, again with a clinical question. 

'I was interested in the management of ankle contracture due to spasticity. 

'I had a lovely mentor—a neurologist, Dr John Dunne—who agreed to be my supervisor. 

'I wasn’t thinking at that time “I’m going to go into academia”; I was just thinking “I need to have something else to fall back on other than this fairly demanding clinical work”.’

Beyond her continuum of learning and of wanting to be an active part of change, Barby has also repeatedly put up her hand to volunteer. 

Throughout her clinical and research career, Barby has served on many APA state and national groups and committees and on the National Advisory Council as the neurology representative, then as chair in 2009–10. 

She also volunteered as a grants reviewer with the Physiotherapy Research Foundation in 1998. 

Barby has served on a great number of external bodies, committees, review panels and working groups including the Australian Rehabilitation Alliance and the Australian Stroke Coalition.

But perhaps her most widely known work has been with the Australian College of Physiotherapists. 

Not long after becoming a Fellow by Original Contribution (as awarded by the Australian College of Physiotherapists in 2011), Barby joined the College’s board of censors as the original contribution representative
and later as the neurology rep. 

It was the first of many roles with the College, including serving on the College Council and spending several years as chief censor. 

In that role, one of Barby’s achievements was the establishment of a wide-ranging review of the examination process for Fellowship by Specialisation. 

She has acted as examination coordinator for these exams in 2018, 2019 and 2020, continuing in the role today.

'After I became a Fellow, I could see areas where the College needed to grow and change. 

'At that time we had so few specialists and Fellows by Original Contribution relative to the size of the APA membership. 

'When people were asking “How can we promote the College better? How can it become part of the career pathway?” 

'I thought, “I have these strong ideas about that and it’s something I’m passionate about, making it accessible to more APA members to move through that pathway.” 

'So I put my hand up. If you’re saying “We need to do this and we need to do that”, I think you need to be part of the “we”.

‘The thing that amazed me about my time at the College was the generosity of members, particularly our specialists, in their support for the registrars in the training program. 

'It’s just astounding. They’re busy people but they’re giving up their clinical time, when they could be seeing a patient. 

'And they’ve usually got long waiting lists but they’re prepared to take time out to support the registrars and the program. 

'There are just so many wonderful people in the College,’ Barby says.

Barby was part of the management team at the College during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

She was instrumental in the development and successful implementation of the virtual examination model required as a result of the COVID lockdowns. 

Given the logistical challenges involved, it was an amazing feat and one that Barby reflects on with positivity.

‘It was a difficult time. 

'The pain discipline was also starting up around then so there was quite a lot of complexity, between introducing a new stream and managing and supporting our registrars through the stressors of COVID, their clinical life, financial stresses, illness and all the rest of it. 

'But I think there was a silver lining because we did create a real community of practice, a community of learners within the training program,’ Barby says.

‘Previously, with the face-to-face meetings, registrars tended to stick with their cohort at the same stage in the program. 

'Sometimes we had a cohort that was multi-stage but in their face-to-face meetings they’d be in their groups of two, three or four with a facilitator. 

'When they started meeting online during COVID, suddenly they could meet with all the registrars in their discipline and all the registrars in their year group. 

'We saw a lot more interdisciplinary meetings, which was great. 

'I think they really became aware of the benefits of meeting with clinicians from other areas of physiotherapy. But it was a hard time for the College and for the registrars overall.’

Barby says she is thankful for the many wonderful physiotherapists she has worked alongside, and learned from, throughout her career. 

She acknowledges Specialist Neurological Physiotherapist (as awarded by the Australian College of Physiotherapists in 2008) Professor Prue Morgan FACP as someone whose footsteps she has followed in, taking over from her as the APA Neurology group representative on the National Advisory Council and later when she stepped off the board of censors.

‘We worked together on APA Neurology group committees in the 1980s and she’s been very active in the specialisation training program as a facilitator, case study reviewer, examiner (for decades) and now chair of one of the College standing committees. 

'I have really admired her passion and see her as a kind of mentor in my career pathway, although we’ve never had a mentoring relationship per se,’ Barby says.

It was during the COVID pandemic that Barby was notified that she was to be named an APA Honoured Member, with a presentation set to take place at the 2021 physiotherapy conference that was postponed the same year. 

Barby was recently given the opportunity to accept her accolade at October’s IGNITE 2023 physiotherapy conference in Brisbane, along with her fellow APA Honoured Member Michael Ryan FACP.

‘I was extremely surprised when I first took the call from [APA President] Scott [Willis] back in 2021. 

'He rang me at work during the day and, you know, you get a call from the president and you think, “Oh no, what have I done?” 

'So it was most unexpected. But I am delighted to be an Honoured Member,’ Barby says. ‘Absolutely thrilled.’


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