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How to Become a Physiotherapist

Responsibilities, working hours, what to expect and qualifications needed

Career guides » How to Become a Physiotherapist

What does a physiotherapist do?

A physiotherapist is a trained and regulated practitioner who treats patients affected by illness, injury, disability or age-related problems. They help improve and restore a patient’s range of movement and function and reduce the risk of future ill health or injury. They also have an important role in promoting patient health and wellbeing.

Physiotherapists mainly work in healthcare settings, such as hospitals, GP surgeries and care homes, but can work in other premises and even patients’ homes. They treat patients of all ages (from children to the elderly) who have different ailments – from those with short-term issues, e.g. after an accident, to those with long-term conditions, such as cystic fibrosis.

Physiotherapists will have many duties, including meeting patients and assessing their condition, deciding on appropriate treatments, using different techniques to treat patients and providing advice. The role can also have an element of administrative work, such as typing up case notes and reports.

A physiotherapist’s main aim is to help patients recover or manage their condition so they have a good quality of life, independence and improved health and wellbeing. They also provide support and guidance to patients. Overall, a physiotherapist helps patients to be as happy and pain-free as possible.

Physiotherapists can work alone but will also work closely with their colleagues, e.g. fellow physiotherapists. They may also need to liaise with external stakeholders, including doctors, nurses, specialists, GPs, other healthcare teams, patients, families, friends and the public.

Usually, physiotherapists work for large organisations, e.g. the NHS, but they can also work for smaller companies, such as private clinics and charities. Some physiotherapists may choose to have their own practice and become self-employed.

Responsibilities

A physiotherapist will have many different responsibilities, which may include (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Helping patients on a daily basis with different conditions, such as those with sports injuries, back pain, arthritis, asthma and others who have had a stroke, heart attack or an injury after an accident.
  • Helping older patients to become more mobile.
  • Liaising closely with patients on their needs and involving them and their carers (where applicable).
  • Diagnosing patients’ problems/conditions and making clinical assessments.
  • Identifying, designing and reviewing appropriate treatment plans.
  • Recommending exercises for patients’ conditions.
  • Using high-tech equipment, including ultrasound.
  • Using different techniques, e.g. manual therapy, massage, acupuncture, therapeutic exercise, electrotherapy and hydrotherapy.
  • Promoting health and wellbeing.
  • Advising patients on how to avoid illness and injury.
  • Liaising with other healthcare professionals, such as doctors and nurses.
  • Taking case notes, writing reports and collecting statistics.
  • Supervising and supporting student physiotherapists and other new staff.
  • Keeping up to date with the latest advancements in physiotherapy techniques, treatments and standards.

Working hours

A physiotherapist can expect to work 35-40 hours a week, but the average tends to be around 37.5 hours per week. Their shifts may also include unsociable hours, such as early starts, evenings, nights, weekends and bank holidays.

Flexible working is possible for physiotherapists, e.g. part-time hours or a job share. There are even opportunities for remote working from home with certain roles.

Travel may be necessary for some physiotherapists that work in the community to get to appointments. There may be a requirement to cover for physiotherapists in other areas, and there may also be opportunities to work overseas to gain experience.

What to expect

Being a physiotherapist who helps people in pain and/or with restricted mobility, is extremely rewarding. They can go home at the end of the working day knowing they have made a significant difference to patients’ health and wellbeing and their quality of life. If an individual makes a good recovery or their condition is well-managed, it will also have a positive societal impact, as it will mean less burden on the NHS, and a person may be able to remain in work.

There is no shortage of physiotherapy roles; there are jobs available nationally, and there are many different roles in which to specialise. The salary for a physiotherapist is also good when compared to other jobs, even at entry level. However, it does reflect the level of education, training and commitment needed to become a physiotherapist.

Boredom will never be a problem for physiotherapists, as their work is very varied. They can work in various locations and with many different people. One day may involve helping a patient with a sports injury; the next may require assisting a patient who has had a stroke.
Even though being a physiotherapist is rewarding, and there are many positives associated with the role, they may also face challenges, for example:

  • Physically demanding – physiotherapists can get extremely busy with multiple patients. It is also physically demanding work. Individuals can spend all day on their feet and will often provide physical support to patients. There is also an element of manual handling involved in the role.
  • Challenging patients – not only is the role physically demanding, but it can also be very stressful and mentally demanding. Physiotherapists often work with patients who are in pain, ill, frustrated and unhappy. These individuals can be challenging to work with and may even subject physiotherapists to verbal and/or physical abuse. It can also be difficult seeing people in distress.
  • Complex cases – some patients will have complicated problems/conditions, which can be challenging to diagnose and treat. Physiotherapists need to adopt a holistic approach and be confident in diagnosing and treating different types of people with a range of issues.

There are pros and cons in every career choice, and prospective physiotherapists must know what to expect before deciding whether the role is for them. There is no doubt that working with injured, ill or disabled people can be challenging and stressful. It is also physically and mentally demanding. However, there are many positives too and helping people is why individuals enter the profession.

When considering whether to be a physiotherapist, individuals should look at the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the necessary personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.

Personal qualities needed to be a physiotherapist

Some of the personal qualities that a physiotherapist requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Knowledge of healthcare, anatomy, physiology and psychology.
  • Knowledge of related legislation and standards.
  • Knowledge of safeguarding.
  • Knowledge of health and safety.
  • Knowledge of confidentiality, data protection and GDPR.
  • Having a caring attitude, sensitivity, empathy and understanding.
  • Having confidence and a reassuring manner.
  • Having patience.
  • Having practical skills and can work effectively with their hands.
  • Enjoying being hands-on with people on a daily basis.
  • Excellent interpersonal skills, i.e. the ability to deal with patients, families, members of the public, and other external bodies.
  • Excellent communication skills, both written and verbal.
  • Good customer service skills.
  • Good analytical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making skills.
  • Good listening skills and the ability to give and follow instructions.
  • Good planning and organisational skills.
  • Good time management.
  • Good business skills (if self-employed).
  • Good physical skills, e.g. physically fit with good movement and coordination.
  • Being motivated and committed to helping people.
  • Being thorough and having attention to detail.
  • Being open and flexible to change.
  • The ability to work both in a team and alone using own initiative.
  • The ability to follow procedures.
  • The ability to work under pressure and remain calm in stressful situations.
  • The ability to use IT equipment and software competently.
  • The ability to work with and maintain different high-tech equipment.
  • The ability to work in a physically demanding role, e.g. lifting patients and heavy equipment.

Qualifications

To become a physiotherapist, individuals need a degree in physiotherapy recognised by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP). Undergraduate degrees usually take three years full time, or six years part time. To be accepted onto an undergraduate degree course usually requires two or three relevant A levels (or equivalent), including biology, and five GCSEs (grades A-C), including English language, maths and at least one science. It will depend on the university entry requirements, and individuals should check before applying.

Enrolling on an appropriate undergraduate degree programme is the main route to become a physiotherapist. However, individuals can also undertake a postgraduate course, such as a master’s, which usually takes two years full time. To be accepted on this type of course usually requires a relevant degree in biology, psychology and sports science (2:1 or 2:2 depending on the university). Students can enrol on undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses on a full-time or part-time basis.

There is also an opportunity to apply for a physiotherapist degree apprenticeship. Individuals should have 4 or 5 GCSEs at grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) and 2-3 A levels (or equivalent), including biology. The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy has further information on apprenticeships on their website.

There is financial support available for those wishing to study for a health-related degree. Further information about funds and eligibility can be found on the NHS website.

On successful completion of an approved qualification, individuals must register with the HCPC to practise physiotherapy. Registration must be renewed every two years. There is a cost to become registered and for maintaining registration.

Young physiotherapist working with disabled lady

Work experience and volunteering

To become a registered physiotherapist, individuals will require a degree, as mentioned. However, other options can help individuals work towards entering the profession, for example:

  • Work experience – it is possible to start work as a physiotherapy assistant whilst studying for a degree. Individuals can also get a paid role in the healthcare sector before applying for a course.
  • Volunteering – gaining practical experience through volunteering can help towards becoming a physiotherapist. An individual can volunteer at their local NHS trust or a charity, such as a hospice. Alternatively, there may be work placement opportunities in private clinics, clubs and care homes.

Individuals may have an opportunity to shadow an experienced physiotherapist at their local hospital or clinic to find out more about the role and see if it is a career path for them.

Rehabilitation therapist working in care home with elderly lady

Training courses

Learning does not stop with experience or once someone becomes qualified. Attending relevant training courses and having additional certifications can help physiotherapists enter the profession, enhance their employability and keep their knowledge and skills current.

Most colleges and accredited private training providers provide training courses. Some examples of relevant courses that may be useful for physiotherapists include:

  • First aid.
  • Equality and diversity.
  • Safeguarding (children and vulnerable adults).
  • Infection control.
  • Mental health and capacity.
  • Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DoLS).
  • Anxiety awareness.
  • COVID-19 awareness.
  • Health and safety, e.g. manual handling.
  • Understanding GDPR.

Professional bodies and associations, such as the HCPC and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP), can advise on reputable training courses. They also have events that can help physiotherapists and give them the means to continue their professional development. Continuing professional development (CPD) is a mandatory requirement for HCPC registration and some levels of CSP membership, i.e. chartered physiotherapists. Also, see CPD courses for physiotherapists for further guidance on CPD.

The type of training required will depend on what employers are looking for and the CPD requirements for registration. As well as looking on professional body websites, it is also worth looking at several job advertisements to identify the courses required and other training needed for specialist roles. Jobs can be found on NHS Jobs, CSP, JustPhysio, HealthJobsUK and other job sites, such as Armed Forces Careers and Indeed.

Having more relevant training and competence will open up more opportunities for physiotherapists. Refresher training will also be required, as it is a legal requirement under legislation, and it keeps knowledge and skills up to date.

Criminal records checks

Physiotherapists will be required to undergo a criminal record check, as they may come into contact with children and vulnerable adults. Having a criminal record, caution, warning or conviction may put off prospective employers. However, they should account for the seriousness of the crime, when it occurred and its relevance to the physiotherapist role.

The organisation that holds criminal records will depend on the country within the UK, for example:

Driving

Some physiotherapists will be required to drive as part of their role, especially when working in the community. Therefore, they should have a full clean driving licence.

Physiotherapist working in school with young child

Where do physiotherapists work?

Physiotherapists can work in many different settings, including:

  • Hospitals.
  • Community health centres.
  • GP surgeries.
  • Universities, colleges and schools.
  • Children’s centres.
  • Clinics.
  • Residential care homes and nursing homes.
  • Hospices.
  • Daycare centres.
  • Patients’ homes.
  • Their own homes or business premises.
  • Fitness centres and gyms.
  • Prisons.

 

They can work for public bodies and private organisations, for example:

  • The NHS.
  • HM Prison Service.
  • Private hospitals and clinics.
  • Sports teams and clubs.
  • Charities.
  • The armed forces, e.g. the RAF, Navy or Army.

 

They can also be self-employed and work for themselves.

Physiotherapist checking her clients for the day

How much do physiotherapists earn?

If a physiotherapist decides to work for the NHS, their salary is subject to a band pay system (agenda for change pay rates). For example (these are a guide only and are subject to change):

  • Starting salary (band 5) – between £25,655 and £31,534.
  • More experienced physiotherapists (band 6) – between £32,306 and £39,027.
  • Highly specialised physiotherapists (band 7) – between £40,057 and £45,839.
  • Principal physiotherapists (band 8a) – between £47,126 and £53,219.
  • Consultant physiotherapists (band 8b) – between £54,764 and £63,862.
  • Head of services (band 8c) – between £65,664 and £75,874.

 

The exact salaries for physiotherapists will depend on the role, location (London supplement) and years of experience. As physiotherapists progress in their careers and enter more senior positions, the band will increase. The NHS also provides a training salary for trainees (known as annex 21).

There is potential for physiotherapists to earn more if they work in other settings, e.g. private clinics. More experienced physiotherapists can also combine clinical work with research and lecturing.

As an apprentice, the salary will depend on an individual’s age and how long they have been in their apprenticeship. Apprentices must earn at least the current National Minimum Wage (NMW). Some employers will pay more than this, but it will depend on the organisation and role on offer.

Physiotherapist working with disabled service user

Types of physiotherapy roles to specialise in

Not only are there opportunities for physiotherapists to move up the career ladder, but there are also many different areas they can specialise in, for example (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Neuromusculoskeletal or MSK – this is the most common type of physiotherapy, which involves treating patients with problems of the nervous, muscular and/or skeletal systems. For example, arthritis, back pain, sports injuries and whiplash.
  • Cardiovascular – this involves treating and rehabilitating patients who have issues with their heart and associated vascular systems. For example, heart attack, heart surgery recovery and chronic heart disease.
  • Neurological – this involves assessing and treating patients who have issues with their nervous system and helping to improve their quality of life. For example, stroke, multiple sclerosis, motor neurone disease and Parkinson’s disease.
  • Respiratory – this involves helping patients with respiratory diseases. For example, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cystic fibrosis.
  • Paediatrics – specialising in the treatment of various issues in infants, children and young people. For example, congenital disorders and disabilities.
  • Geriatrics – specialising in the treatment of various issues in elderly patients. For example, limited mobility and cancer.
  • Women’s health – specialising in the treatment of various issues specific to women. For example, pregnancy, gynaecological operation recovery, bladder control and menopause.
  • Sports – specialising in the treatment of various issues in athletes, sports professionals and amateurs.

Some of the above specialities can be combined into one role, e.g. a cardiorespiratory physiotherapist.

All different physiotherapist roles will require differing knowledge, skills, experience and qualities. However, most physiotherapists will need to know how to diagnose, clinically assess and treat a range of patients, utilise different techniques and equipment, and write case notes and reports. Any additional areas of expertise will depend on what an organisation is looking for in a physiotherapist and the type of work a physiotherapist wants to carry out. Further qualifications and specific training will be necessary for specialised roles.

If physiotherapists do not carry out their role effectively, it can result in a patient’s condition worsening, which can have an adverse impact on their quality of life, health and wellbeing. Therefore, whatever the type of role a physiotherapist has, they must have the necessary competence (knowledge, skills and experience) to carry out the work professionally and safely. They should also know the limits of their competency and not carry out techniques or treatments if they have not been trained and are not competent.

Physiotherapist supporting patient with rehabilitation

Professional bodies

Physiotherapy standards, techniques, treatments and laws are updated regularly. Therefore, physiotherapists need to keep abreast with the latest developments and changes in legislation to remain legally compliant and ensure they carry out their roles effectively and safely. CPD gives physiotherapists the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes and understand their responsibilities. It also helps them stay registered with the HCPC and allows them to progress their career, e.g. leading to a senior position, such as a principal physiotherapist.

Joining a professional body can help prospective and current physiotherapists enhance their skills and overall career. The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) offers different levels of membership, CPD, access to industry contacts and networking events.

There is ample opportunity for career progression within the industry. With more qualifications and experience, a physiotherapist can become a manager, consultant and even head of service. They can also decide to focus on a specific area of physiotherapy, such as respiratory or paediatrics. Alternatively, they may choose to have their own physiotherapy practice and become self-employed.

Having the knowledge, skills and experience can also lead to a career in different areas. For example, a physiotherapist may want to work in education and training, operations management or research. They may want to work in other areas of healthcare, e.g. occupational health or disability assessment.

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