If you're a people person interested in improving physical health, physiotherapy could be the career for you

As a physiotherapist you'll help patients with physical difficulties resulting from illness, injury, disability or ageing to improve their movement. You will devise and review treatment programmes using manual therapy (such as massage), 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, stroke patients and people with sports injuries.

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;
  • diagnose, assess and treat their physical problem/condition;
  • develop and review treatment programmes that encourage exercise and movement by the use of a range of 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, 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 £21,909 to £28,462.
  • With experience you can earn between £26,302 and £35,225 (band 6).
  • Once you've reached highly specialist/advanced practitioner level (band 7), you can earn between £31,383 and £41,373. Physiotherapists working as extended scope practitioners may earn more.

There are extra allowances payable in the London area, and you may also get assistance towards the costs of accommodation.

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

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Physiotherapists typically work 37.5 hours a week, which may include evenings, nights and weekends. As a sports therapist 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 often 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 home. You may have to travel between appointments if working in the community.
  • Self-employment and private practice work is possible.
  • 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) approval.

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 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.

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 courses see CSP Physiotherapy degrees.

There is one work-based learning programme available at Sheffield Hallam University. The course is full time over 27 months and is aimed at students who have around two years' experience of working in health and social care, for example as a physiotherapy assistant.

You will also need to complete a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • excellent communication skills;
  • interpersonal skills to establish a rapport with patients and their families;
  • team work skills to collaborate with other healthcare professionals, such as doctors, nurses, occupational therapists and social workers;
  • problem-solving ability;
  • tolerance, patience, sensitivity and tact;
  • organisational and administrative skills;
  • a firm but encouraging and empathetic attitude;
  • 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.

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 or St John Ambulance 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, where your skills are needed in most departments such as:

  • elderly care;
  • intensive care;
  • mental health;
  • occupational health;
  • outpatients' departments;
  • orthopaedics;
  • 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 agencies such as Labmed may recruit for physiotherapy posts.

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.

As a registered physiotherapist you can become a member of the CSP. Membership provides access to advice and career development opportunities, as well as the chance to network with colleagues. The CSP list 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.

Once you've got experience at advanced practitioner level, you can complete a course approved by the HCPC that allows you to independently prescribe medication to your patients for pain and inflammation.

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 critical care or with a specific group of patients, for example the elderly or children.

Once you're working in an advanced practice (extended scope) role, you can join the Extended Scope Practitioners Professional Network (ESP PN). Roles vary considerably and can include requesting investigations, making management decisions based on investigations, advanced reasoning skills developed through postgraduate training and professional development, advanced decision-making and other skills such as injections with the use of ultrasound guidance. Some ESPs perform nerve conduction studies and may perform minor surgery or other medical procedures that are usually carried out by doctors.

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.