Physiotherapists help patients with physical difficulties resulting from illness, injury, disability or ageing to restore and maximise their movement and reduce the risk of further problems arising in the future

As a physiotherapist you'll meet with patients to assess their physical problem/disorder. Having made a diagnosis, you'll then design and review appropriate treatment programmes using a range of techniques, including manual therapy, therapeutic exercise and electrotherapy.

As well as treating patients, you'll also promote their health and wellbeing and provide advice on how to avoid injury and self-manage long-term conditions.

Patients can include children, the elderly, people with sports injuries, intensive care patients who require chest physiotherapy and stroke patients.

Types of physiotherapist

There are many clinical specialties and sub-specialties within physiotherapy, which have grown over time. These include:

  • cardiovascular - includes chronic heart disease and rehabilitation after a heart attack
  • neurology - includes multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and stroke patients
  • neuromusculoskeletal - includes arthritis, back pain, sports injuries and whiplash
  • paediatrics - treatment of infants, children and young people
  • respiratory - includes asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cystic fibrosis.

Responsibilities

As a physiotherapist, you'll need to:

  • work with patients who have a range of conditions, including neurological, neuromusculoskeletal, cardiovascular and respiratory, sometimes over a period of weeks
  • make a clinical assessment and diagnosis in order to treat their physical problem/condition
  • design and review clinical management plans that encourage exercise and movement by the use of a range of techniques, and which may include specialist rehabilitation, life-style medicine, long-term strategies, and clinical techniques
  • involve parents and carers in the treatment, review and rehabilitation of patients
  • educate patients and their carers about how to prevent and/or improve conditions
  • write patient case notes and reports, and collect statistics
  • liaise with other healthcare professionals, such as GPs, consultants, occupational therapists and social workers, to exchange information about the background and progress of patients, as well as to refer patients who require other medical attention
  • keep up to date with new techniques and technologies available for treating patients
  • supervise student and junior physiotherapists and physiotherapy support workers
  • be legally responsible and accountable
  • be caring, compassionate and professional at all times
  • manage clinical risk.

Salary

  • Jobs in the NHS consist of nine pay bands and are usually covered by the Agenda for Change (AfC) pay rates. Starting salaries for qualified physiotherapists (Band 5) range from £24,907 to £30,615. Senior physiotherapists can earn between £31,365 and £37,890 (Band 6).
  • As a clinical specialist/team leader, you can earn between £38,890 and £44,503 (Band 7).
  • Salaries for advanced practice, extended scope or clinical lead physiotherapists are around £45,753 to £51,668 (Band 8a), rising to between £53,168 and £62,001 (Band 8b) for consultant physiotherapist roles.
  • Salaries rise to in excess of £63,000 (Band 8c) for management roles such as head of service.
  • Salaries in private practice are higher and it's possible to achieve a salary of around £75,000 with the right combination of skills, knowledge and experience.

Most physiotherapists combine NHS work with private work. Experienced physiotherapists may combine clinical work, university lecturing and research.

Those working in London and the surrounding areas may receive a high-cost area supplement of between 5% and 20% of their basic salary.

Salaries and conditions of work in the private sector may vary from those in the NHS.

Income figures are intended as a guide only. Check AfC pay rates for the most up-to-date NHS salary details.

Working hours

Physiotherapists typically work 37.5 hours a week, which may include evenings, nights and weekends. As a sports physiotherapist you're likely to work at the weekend, and in private practice your hours will reflect the needs of your clients.

Locum and part-time work opportunities are also available.

What to expect

  • The work may be physically demanding, with busy caseloads. Although patients' problems may be complex, physiotherapy is a very rewarding job.
  • As a physiotherapist, you're under contractual obligation to maintain patient confidentiality.
  • If employed by the NHS, you may be based in hospitals, health centres, clinics or GP surgeries. Physiotherapists working in the community may need to visit patients in their own homes. You may have to travel between appointments if working in the community.
  • Self-employment and private practice work is common.
  • There may be opportunities to work abroad to further your experience. Do your research and check whether registration is in operation in the country you want to work in.

Qualifications

To practise as a chartered physiotherapist you must be registered with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC). To achieve this, you must successfully complete either an undergraduate or an accelerated postgraduate degree course in physiotherapy approved by the HCPC. All degree courses also hold Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) accreditation.

For a place on a full-time undergraduate course, lasting three years (four in Scotland), you'll typically need two or three good A-levels (or equivalent), including a biological science (biology or human biology) and/or PE. You'll also need a minimum of five GCSE passes at grade C/level 4 or above, including maths, English language and sciences.

Part-time courses are available at several universities, although some of these are aimed at physiotherapist support workers, already working in a healthcare setting, who want to become chartered physiotherapists. Courses typically last between four and six years.

You can also take an HCPC-accredited degree apprenticeship, which combines work-based learning modules and specialist education. Search for apprenticeship vacancies with a healthcare provider on the Find an Apprenticeship and NHS Jobs websites.

To be accepted onto the two-year accelerated postgraduate course, you'll usually need a 2:1 degree or above in a subject such as biological or behavioural science, psychology, physiology or sports science. Both routes include a mix of theory and practical training. Entry requirements vary depending on the course provider.

For a list of accredited undergraduate, degree apprenticeship and postgraduate courses, see CSP Physiotherapy degrees.

You will also need to complete a criminal record check.

All pre-registration undergraduate and postgraduate physiotherapy students studying in England can receive funding support of at least £5,000 per year via the NHS Learning Support Fund. There is up to £3,000 further funding available for eligible students. You don't have to pay it back and are still able to access funding for tuition and maintenance loans from the Student Loans Company.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • excellent communication skills
  • interpersonal skills to establish a rapport with patients and their families
  • the ability to explain treatments simply to patients and their families
  • teamwork skills to collaborate with other healthcare professionals, such as doctors, nurses, occupational therapists and social workers
  • good manual skills
  • problem-solving ability
  • tolerance, patience, sensitivity and tact
  • organisational and administrative skills
  • a firm but encouraging and empathetic attitude
  • the ability to motivate others
  • a genuine concern for the wellbeing and health of patients
  • a real interest in anatomy and physiology
  • the ability to work under pressure and manage your time effectively.

You'll also need business skills if working in private practice.

Work experience

Employers want to see that you've researched the profession and have a good understanding of the role. Try to visit a local physiotherapy department and ask to shadow a physiotherapist to get an idea of what the work is like and whether it would suit you.

It's also useful to get some voluntary or paid experience in a health or care setting to show your interest in the area. There may be opportunities with private physiotherapy clinics, sports clinics, football clubs, special schools and units, and nursing homes.

Voluntary work for charities such as the British Red Cross, St John Ambulance or the MS Society may also be valuable. This experience will help when applying for jobs. Working as a physiotherapy support worker provides a valuable insight into the role and shows your commitment.

Employers

The NHS is the major employer of physiotherapists. Your skills are needed in most departments, such as:

  • elderly care
  • intensive care
  • mental health
  • occupational health
  • orthopaedics
  • outpatients' departments
  • paediatrics
  • stroke services
  • women's health.

You may also work in the community, for local authorities or the private sector in:

  • private hospitals and clinics
  • GP practices and health centres
  • schools and children's centres
  • nursing homes and day centres for elderly people
  • charities and voluntary organisations, particularly those serving people with disabilities
  • sports clinics, professional sports clubs, gyms and leisure centres
  • the armed services.

Some physiotherapists work in a variety of settings. For example, you may work part time at a sports injury clinic and have another part-time post with an NHS or private hospital. Another option is self-employment.

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies such as Maxxima also advertise vacancies.

Professional development

Once qualified, you're likely to receive clinical supervision on the job and mentoring support. You'll be encouraged to develop your knowledge and skills by attending briefing sessions, short courses and reflective practice programmes. This contributes to your continuing professional development (CPD), which is a requirement of continued registration with the HCPC.

In Scotland, newly qualified physiotherapists can access Flying Start NHS. This programme supports your learning during your first year of practice in NHS Scotland.

Membership of the CSP provides access to advice and career development opportunities, as well as the chance to network with colleagues. The CSP lists details of post-qualifying courses and available events. These can range from short one-day courses to postgraduate certificates, diplomas and MSc qualifications in areas such as advanced physiotherapy, manual therapy and sports therapy.

With experience, there are opportunities to undertake further training in areas such as injection therapy and supplementary or independent prescribing. In order to be able to prescribe, you must successfully complete an HCPC-approved training programme in prescribing and have an annotation (mark) on your record on the HCPC register. You can then prescribe all licensed medicines that are within the scope of physiotherapy prescribing practice. For more information, see the CSP - Medicines, prescribing and injection therapy.

Once you're working in an advanced practice role, you can join the Advanced Practice Physiotherapy Network (APPN).

Career prospects

If you're working in an NHS hospital, there's a defined career structure. You can work your way up from a physiotherapist to a specialist and then on to advanced level.

You may begin in a rotational role, working in different departments to get more experience in different specialties, e.g. outpatients and orthopaedics. Following this initial clinical experience, you may choose to specialise in a particular area of practice such as neurology or paediatrics.

Physiotherapists in advanced clinical roles, with many years of clinical experience and postgraduate qualifications, are able to prescribe medicine, provide injection therapy, request diagnostic imaging and practise injecting under sonography within their scope of practice. You'll often work in specialist consultant clinics, where you'll assess, manage and list patients for surgical/medical procedures on behalf of orthopaedic consultants, spinal consultants, rheumatology consultants or medical consultants (if ward-based).

There are opportunities to move into a management post within physiotherapy services, with responsibility for strategy, budgets and staff, or into general health service management. You may also decide to get into teaching, training or research.

Alternatively, you may choose to work in private practice and then progress to open your own practice and become self-employed.

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