An osteopath is a healthcare professional who practises a system of manual medicine that focuses primarily on the musculoskeletal system.

Osteopaths work on the principle that the well-being of a person is dependent on the skeleton, muscles, ligaments and connective tissues all functioning smoothly together.

They use touch, physical manipulation, stretching and massage to treat a patient. The aim is to increase the mobility of joints, to relieve muscle tension and boost the amount of blood supply to tissues.

They may provide advice on posture and exercise in order to help patients recover faster and prevent problems occurring again.

Osteopaths are increasingly working alongside doctors to provide treatment for a range of conditions including:

  • back pain;
  • injuries;
  • joint pain;
  • and digestive disorders.

Patients can range in age from newborns to older adults.

Responsibilities

Osteopaths aim to help to reduce the symptoms and improve the health and quality of life of the patient by:

  • identifying imbalances within the musculoskeletal system;
  • facilitating the body's ability to heal itself through stretching, massage and gentle manipulation;
  • offering added exercise and health advice.

Tasks often include:

  • taking detailed case histories from new patients, including general health, specific symptoms and other details;
  • assessing the patient's general posture and checking for restrictions or tensions in joints or muscles by asking the patient to perform a series of active movements;
  • undertaking physical examinations of patients by using a highly refined sense of touch (palpation) to identify any restricted, weak or strained areas of the body;
  • taking a patient's blood pressure and making other physical assessments as necessary;
  • making a working diagnosis;
  • planning treatment in partnership with the patient. Osteopathic treatments often involve working with the hands using soft tissue techniques, gentle release techniques and other appropriate methods of treatment, such as cranial osteopathy;
  • making lifestyle and dietary recommendations to patients, as required, regarding areas such as posture, eating, exercise and relaxation;
  • referring patients to other specialists, if required;
  • maintaining accurate and up-to-date patient records;
  • referring to and interpreting digital imagery generated by scanning techniques such as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), ultrasound and x-rays.

Many osteopaths are self-employed. Additional tasks related to running a business include:

  • administration;
  • promotion;
  • accounting;
  • developing new areas of business;
  • premises management;
  • managing staff.

Salary

  • Most osteopaths are self-employed and salaries are, therefore, difficult to estimate. Osteopaths typically charge £35 to £50 for a session lasting 30 to 40 minutes.
  • Income ranges significantly and many osteopaths choose a balanced lifestyle and their income from osteopathy will reflect that choice.
  • Income depends on how many patients you have and how many hours you work each week.
  • Salary also depends on factors such as the geographic location of a practice and the experience and entrepreneurial skills of the osteopath.

Income data from the General Osteopathic Council. Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Many osteopaths offer evening and weekend appointments to reach a wider client base.

Career breaks and part-time work are possible.

What to expect

  • An osteopath's practice can be based in a variety of locations, e.g. at home, at a health centre, in private sports/leisure facilities and in high street shops such as pharmacies.
  • Although osteopaths work independently, they have constant, close contact with patients and the opportunity to regularly meet with colleagues through local groups.
  • Osteopathy attracts almost equal numbers of men and women.
  • Work is available in most areas in towns and cities throughout the UK. The majority of osteopaths work in England (86%), while in Scotland the percentage is 3.2%; in Wales, 2.4%; and in Northern Ireland, 0.4% (General Osteopathic Council (GOsC), 2014).
  • The work can be physically, mentally and emotionally demanding although very rewarding.
  • Travel within a working day is occasional. However, it is common when first entering work to be based at two, or even three, different practices in order to make up a full working week.
  • Around 8% of osteopaths work outside the UK (GOsC).

Qualifications

The vast majority of osteopathic education is undertaken at degree level. Osteopathic students follow a four- or five-year degree course combining academic, practical and clinical education. Courses can be studied part time, full time or a mixture of both.

If you want to practice as an osteopath in the UK, by law you must be registered with the General Osteopathic Council (GOsC). To be eligible to apply for registration, you need to complete a course that is recognised by the GOsC.

There are currently 11 institutions providing recognised courses based in:

  • Hertfordshire;
  • Kent;
  • Leeds;
  • London;
  • Oxford;
  • Staffordshire;
  • Surrey;
  • Swansea.

Course providers offer different opportunities to study for a Bachelors degree in osteopathy (a BSc, BOst or BOstMed) or a Masters degree (MOst or MSc). Full details of available courses and providers are available at General Osteopathic Council: Training Courses.

Doctors and physiotherapists are able to take an accelerated course in osteopathy.

Courses usually include elements of anatomy, physiology, nutrition, biomechanics, pathology and pharmacology, in addition to over 1,000 hours of clinical training.

Research courses carefully as tuition fees can vary. Interest-free loans for undergraduate and postgraduate courses may be available from the Osteopathic Educational Foundation. It may also provide small grants towards fees, travel and equipment to osteopaths undertaking higher education. Check the website for details on eligibility and how to apply.

As part of your registration with the GOsC you will be required to have an enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service check. You must be covered by professional indemnity insurance for a minimum of £2.5million.

Like all healthcare professionals, as well as being technically competent, and able to communicate effectively, you also need to be 'fit to practise'. This means exhibiting appropriate professional behaviours and being able to practice to the standards required and outlined in the Osteopathic Practice Standards.

Most newly qualified osteopaths find work quickly, though it may initially be part time.

Skills

You will need:

  • good communication and coordination skills;
  • the ability to work empathetically and sensitively with a range of patients;
  • strong observational skills, a logical approach and the ability to problem solve in order to diagnose effectively;
  • initiative, independence and business awareness.

Work experience

Pre-entry experience is not essential, but it may be useful to spend some time with a practising osteopath. It may be worthwhile to gain experience working with people in a caring role.

Employers

There are more than 4,600 UK osteopaths registered with the General Osteopathic Council (GOsC), which includes some who practice abroad.

Self-employed osteopaths with their own practices must be prepared to invest considerable time and effort in promoting, marketing and building their businesses and building patient lists and reputation. Help and guidance on how to approach this is provided by the Institute of Osteopathy (iO).

Although most osteopaths work on a self-employed basis in the independent sector, it is possible to develop your career in a multidisciplinary environment. Increasing provision of osteopathy via the NHS can mean there may be opportunities to work within hospitals, with doctors in general practice and in community health centres.

Osteopaths also work in occupational healthcare in public bodies and private companies, such as sports clubs and city firms with their own medical centre.

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Professional development

All osteopaths practising in the UK must be registered with the General Osteopathic Council (GOsC). Your registration has to be renewed on an annual basis and as part of this you must make sure you complete at least 30 hours of continuing professional development (CPD). At least 15 hours of this must involve learning with others.

CPD activities can take a range of forms and include:

  • attending lectures and seminars;
  • courses;
  • practical sessions;
  • individual study;
  • undertaking clinical audit;
  • analysis of patient feedback;
  • and structured discussions with colleagues.

The GOsC has a CPD scheme to help members, for more information see General Osteopathic Council: CPD.

Various special interest groups and osteopathic educational institutions provide a number of CPD courses for osteopaths. These can include postgraduate qualifications in areas such as sports care and osteopathic treatment of children and short courses on other special interest subjects.

Relevant professional bodies can help you keep up to date with news and developments in the area and can provide advice on clinical skills and your osteopathic business. See the Institute of Osteopathy (iO).

It may be useful for self-employed osteopaths to take short courses in subjects such as marketing, accounts, administration or other business-related subjects that help with running a business.

Career prospects

There is no formal structured career path in osteopathy, but career progression usually begins by working as an associate in an osteopathic practice and then leads on to setting up and running your own practice.

Alternatively, you might progress from an associate to working within a group osteopathic practice.

With a number of years' experience, you may discover opportunities to pursue individual specialist interests and to develop work with particular patient groups, for example, athletes or older people.

As osteopaths are usually self-employed, the success of your practice may be dependent on your entrepreneurial, marketing and networking skills.

Some osteopaths start an academic career and go on to teach at one of the approved osteopathic training schools after gaining experience in the field.

Research in osteopathy is also a growing area of the profession and there are increasing opportunities to undertake research into particular specialist areas.

There are opportunities to work abroad, subject to the country's registration requirements.