The physiotherapy profession works with people of all ages who are experiencing a range of conditions that impact their musculoskeletal, neuromuscular, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems, with a view to preventing chronic conditions by promoting optimal function, mobility, and wellbeing.
Physiotherapists are arguably the most recognisable and widespread of the allied health professions, and is one of the few allied health professions to have an International Day of Recognition.
What do physiotherapists do?
Physiotherapists manage injuries and the symptoms associated with many chronic health conditions.
They provide manual and other forms of therapy, as well as prescribe exercises, supportive and immobilising aids, lifestyle advice, and education.
Just some of the common reasons people seek or receive physiotherapy services include:
- Sports injuries and musculoskeletal problems
- Long COVID
- Stroke, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and other neurological conditions
- Osteoarthritis and other forms of arthritis
- Acute and chronic pain management
- Cancer (including cancer treatment prehabilitation)
- Paediatric conditions and developmental delay
- Conditioning and strengthening post-injury, surgery, or illness
- Injury and falls prevention.
Physiotherapists can also specialise in areas such as occupational health and safety, sports medicine, intensive care, women’s and men’s pelvic health, and others.
Physiotherapists typically work as part of a multidisciplinary team, and their role and function depend on the needs of the individual client and/or the nature of the settings in which they work. For example, the role of a physiotherapist working in an intensive care unit will be quite different to that of a physiotherapist working in a geriatric evaluation and management unit, which will be different to one working in private practice, or another working in an occupational health and safety role, all with a focus to integrate with the treatment of other allied health professionals to get the best outcome for the patient.
The breadth of the physiotherapy role, as well as the current and emerging postgraduate education opportunities and sub-specialties (e.g., oncology, pelvic health, mental health, etc.), mean physiotherapists can pursue interesting and vastly diverse career pathways.
Where do physiotherapists work?
Known as physical therapists in the USA, Vietnam, Taiwan, and some other countries; physiotherapists work in almost every developed and developing country in the world.
They work in every health setting you can think of, from emergency departments through to palliative care and residential aged care facilities. They work in community health centres, private practice, specialist clinics, rehabilitation centres, general practices, perinatal care, disability support services, and in workplace safety and wellbeing teams.
Physiotherapists also work in academic and research institutions to contribute to the ever-increasing evidence informing physiotherapy practice. You’ll also find physiotherapists as members of professional sporting clubs’ healthcare teams.
Advantageous character traits for physiotherapy
Physiotherapists need to be reflective, lifelong learners. They must keep up to date with the research evidence guiding and informing physiotherapy practice, but also consider their own professional experience and learnings to improve their clinical practice.
Physiotherapists need to be able to communicate well with their clients to conduct thorough and holistic assessments and to understand their individual needs and goals. They must also be able to communicate effectively with other members of the healthcare team, often across different settings—therefore both verbal and written communication skills are a must.
Physiotherapists often need to demonstrate a range of exercises and stretches to their clients when prescribing these, and so physical conditioning and a level of fitness is important for some physiotherapists.
Given the multiple factors physiotherapists must consider when working with individual clients and developing management plans, they need to be able to prioritise key assessments and educational topics effectively and manage their time well.
What are the professional education and regulatory frameworks for physiotherapy?
Aspiring physiotherapists in Australia complete either a four-year bachelor’s degree, or a masters or professional doctorate program. In New Zealand, physiotherapists usually undertake a four-year bachelor’s degree.
To become a physical therapist in the USA, one must first complete an undergraduate degree in a health-related field (e.g., nursing, nutrition, exercise science), followed by an accredited graduate physical therapy program, which can take about seven years all up. In Canada, aspiring physiotherapists undertake a four-year bachelor’s degree or an entry level master’s degree and can go on to complete a clinical masters, masters by thesis or doctoral level program.
In the UK and Sweden, it takes three years of full-time study to attain a bachelor level qualification to practice physiotherapy. Another option in the UK is a degree apprenticeship.
In many countries there are opportunities for physiotherapists to attain postgraduate qualifications to practice in subspecialty areas.
In the UK, physiotherapy is regulated nationally by the Health and Care Professions Council. Australian physiotherapists are regulated nationally via the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency, and in New Zealand, via the Podiatry Board. In Sweden, physiotherapists are licenced via the National Board of Health and Welfare, and in Germany via the Federal Ministry of Health.
In the USA, physiotherapists must be licenced to practice, and each of the 50 states has its own regulatory board. Similarly, physiotherapy practice is regulated in Canada via provincial or territorial regulatory bodies, and in Taiwan the regulation of physiotherapy is managed locally via county or city level authorities.
For some countries, it is less clear whether regulatory frameworks exist for physiotherapy (e.g., Sri Lanka), and other countries are working toward physiotherapy regulation (e.g., India and Malaysia).
Workforce considerations during the COVID-19 pandemic
Physiotherapy is one of a few allied health professions which plays an important role as part of a multidisciplinary intensive care unit (ICU) team. Depending on the patient’s condition and goals, physiotherapists may be involved in supporting airway clearance, airway suctioning, chest percussion, or optimising the patient’s position. To prevent post-ICU functional decline, physiotherapists promote early, safe mobilisation, and prescribe breathing exercises.
Physiotherapy was one of the many healthcare professions required to increase its capacity during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Physiotherapists working in ICU settings were called on to respond to the large number of patients being ventilated due to the acute impacts of COVID-19, and provided support to optimise patients’ positioning, effective breathing, and early rehabilitation.
Although the longer-term impacts of COVID-19 were not yet known in the earlier stages of the pandemic, physiotherapists working in the ICU setting drew on evidence related to other respiratory conditions to guide their practice. With increasingly robust research evidence emerging, physiotherapy continues to develop and refine its COVID-19 clinical practice guidelines. With vaccines and other measures now in place across many countries, the number of people being admitted to intensive care units for management of COVID-19 complications appears to have declined. However, physiotherapists now find themselves needing to respond to the longer-term implications of COVID-19.
Physiotherapists are one of the healthcare professions that has an important role in managing the symptoms associated with long COVID, including fatigue, shortness of breath, and musculoskeletal pain. As the virus continues to spread and more people experience repeated infections, the role of physiotherapy in long COVID research and care is set to increase, and may place strain on this comparatively nimble and diverse profession.
Another implication of the COVID-19 pandemic on physiotherapy is the rapid emergence of telehealth. Given the physical nature of the assessments and treatments provided by physiotherapists, telehealth has been a relatively new approach to delivering care for the majority of this workforce. For physiotherapists involved in stroke rehabilitation, for example, telehealth appears to be acceptable and effective. This may influence the way some physiotherapists deliver care and will require some to develop newer skills related to technology.
Find out more about physiotherapy
Here are some links to websites and resources for and about the physiotherapy profession:
- World Physiotherapy
- Australian Physiotherapy Association
- Canadian Physiotherapy Association
- The Indian Association Of Physiotherapists
- American Physical Therapy Association
- The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy UK
- Physiotherapy New Zealand
- Sri Lanka Society of Physiotherapy
- Swedish Association of Registered Physiotherapists
- German Association for Physiotherapy
If you have questions about the physiotherapy profession, or if you wish to share your experiences as a physiotherapist, please leave a comment below.
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