How to Become a Physical Therapist

physiotherapist and attractice woman

Becoming a physiotherapist – or physical therapist, as they are known in the US – can lead to a fascinating and fulfilling career, particularly if you are interested in how the body works and you enjoy helping people. Although it requires an extensive amount of study, it is well paid and once qualified there are a wide variety of interesting opportunities available.

If you are considering this career path, this guide could come in handy!

1. Research the Profession

Before you decide on a career, you should take the time to thoroughly research it on your own. This will paint a more balanced picture of your chosen profession, as well as giving you an idea of how to get involved.

Job Description

Physiotherapists are healthcare professionals who use evidence-based exercise and movements therapies (among other methods) to treat patients. They do this by promoting mobility and function – usually via a diagnosis and a tailored program of physical activity – that aims to improve the overall quality of the patient’s life.

Often these patients will be referred by doctors, either to aid in their rehabilitation following surgery or trauma or to provide ongoing treatment for an existing condition. For example, a professional athlete might see a physio following surgery on an injured ankle to rebuild the strength and reliability of the ankle, while people suffering from multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease find physiotherapy can ease the symptoms of their condition.

There are many areas that physiotherapists can specialise in though. There are also many different environments in which they can work, such as in hospitals, professional sports clubs or the military.

Key Responsibilities

Depending on specialisation and location, a physiotherapist’s day to day tasks may vary slightly, although most follow a similar pattern:

  • Work with patients who have a range of conditions, usually on a repeat appointment basis. New patients usually require longer appointments.
  • Diagnose, assess and treat their problem / condition.
  • Develop and review treatment and rehabilitation programmes designed to encourage exercise and movement (often in consultation with other healthcare professionals).
  • Involve others in the treatment and review of patients, including education on how to prevent and improve certain ailments.
  • Write case notes and collect statistics.
  • Liaise with other healthcare professionals such as doctors and social workers to exchange information about the background and progress of patients.
  • Research and keep up to date with technologies and techniques available for treating patients.
  • Supervise student and junior physiotherapists.
  • Manage clinical risk.

Essential Skills and Qualities

Being a physiotherapist can often prove a challenging task, and requires the following professional skills:

  • Excellent communication, to break down complex medical jargon in a way your patient can understand.
  • Good interpersonal skills to build a positive relationship with your patients and their families.
  • Strong teamwork skills, to efficiently collaborate with other healthcare professionals.
  • An analytical, problem-solving ability.
  • Tolerance, patience and discretion.
  • Good organisational and administrative skills.
  • The ability to encourage and show empathy, but still be firm.
  • A genuine concern for the health and well-being of your patients.
  • An in-depth interest in anatomy and physiology.
  • The ability to manage time effectively and work to appointment deadlines.

Working Hours and Conditions

Physio working hours are relatively kind compared to other healthcare professionals. You would typically work 37.5 hours a week in a normal practice, although you may have to work weekends too (for example, if you specialise in sports therapy). If you run your own practice you can of course choose your own hours.

Locum and part-time work is also readily available for physiotherapists.

Salary Prospects

In the UK, starting salaries in the NHS are on a Band 5 level, so you could expect to be earning between £22,000 and £28,000 upon completing your studies. With experience you can progress to a Band 6 (£26,000 to £35,000), with the opportunity to achieve Band 7 upon specializing (£31,000 to £41,000). Of course, private sector salaries may be different.

In the US, salaries are dependent upon your location, experience and chosen field, although according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) the average salary for physical therapists in 2016 was around $85,400.

2. Get the Qualifications

To become a practising physiotherapist or physical therapist, you must meet the requirements set by various governing and regulatory bodies.

In the UK, this means going to university and completing an undergraduate degree approved by the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP). To get on one of these courses, you should have good A-Levels (AAB is a typical offer) including biology. Alternatively, you can undertake an accelerated postgraduate degree provided you have an existing 2:1 in a related field, such as biology, physiology or sports science. This also has to be approved by the CSP. Upon completion of your studies, registration with the Health Care Professions Council (HCPC) is compulsory.

In the US, there are more steps in the process. You must complete an undergraduate degree (usually 4 years), before studying for a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree (3 years) that is approved by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). There are currently over 200 schools across the country that meet this requirement.

You then need to apply for an operating license in the state you want to work in. Before you can legally practice, you will also have to pass the National Physical Therapy Exam, administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT). You will also be required to sit exams throughout your career to maintain this license.

3. Land Your First Job

Both the UK and US governments are currently taking steps to address concerns over public health issues, and as a result of this the recruitment of physios to help meet these challenges is increasing. This means there are plenty of opportunities to find work once you are qualified.

In the UK, the biggest employer of physiotherapists is the NHS, your services would be required in a variety of hospital departments including:

  • Elderly care
  • Intensive care
  • Mental health
  • Occupational health
  • Outpatients' departments
  • Orthopaedics
  • Paediatrics
  • Stroke services
  • Women's health

Alternatively you could look for work elsewhere, such as:

  • GP practices and small health centres
  • Private clinics
  • The professional sports industry
  • Nursing homes and day centres for the elderly
  • Gyms and leisure centres
  • The armed forces
  • Charity organisations such as Headley Court, the rehabilitation centre for armed forces personnel

During your studies, you will conduct placements in various departments; it is useful to build up some contacts within the profession. Also, check the following sites when looking for vacancies:

In the US, there are similar employment opportunities for physical therapists. Here are some useful resources to try and find work:

4. Develop Your Career

As you become more experienced, your career path will become more defined. You will be encouraged to focus on a particular area of practice that interests you, such as in one of the following specialities:

  • Cardiovascular and pulmonary physiotherapy
  • Clinical electrophysiology
  • Geriatric physiotherapy
  • Integumentary physiotherapy
  • Neurological physiotherapy
  • Orthopaedic physiotherapy
  • Paediatric physiotherapy
  • Sports physiotherapy
  • Community physiotherapy
  • Women’s health
  • Palliative care
  • Back pain treatment

There is also scope to move into non-clinical roles should you choose, such as in services management where you would be responsible for strategy, budgets and staff. You could also decide to focus on teaching, research or training at a hospital or university.

Additionally, In the UK you can become a member of the CSP, which regularly advertises supplemental education opportunities. These can range from one-day short courses to certificates, diplomas and MSc qualifications.

Job Outlook

In the UK, the job outlook for physiotherapists is very good. This is due to a combination of factors, including the health issues associated with an ageing population. According to the CSP, most physiotherapists find employment within the NHS and other sectors straight away, with most temporary contracts quickly converting to permanent.

In the US, the BLS claim that physical therapy is projected to grow at a much faster rate than other healthcare professions, with a continued increase in conditions and diseases related to obesity and diabetes contributing to the need for more jobs.

Although the salary may not be as high as a doctor’s, physiotherapists are well-respected professionals in the healthcare community. It offers enormous levels of job satisfaction and in many cases you are making a positive difference to someone’s life – just some of the reasons to pursue a career in this extremely interesting field.

Are you interested in a career in physiotherapy? Let us know in the comments below…