What is a physiotherapist? That is:
- Why do people seek us out?
- What differentiates us from other health professionals?
- What skills and knowledge make us unique?
- We’re do we fit into the health care puzzle?
The Australian Physiotherapy Association have summarised it nicely on their website. But their definition lacks specificity. After all, you could substitute other health professionals in place of ‘physiotherapists’ and it would also be true.
Part of the challenge with defining our profession is the breadth of our service. We can work in:
- A private practice managing musculoskeletal injuries
- A hospital working within wards from orthopaedics to cardiorespiratory to neurological (and more)
- Occupational health like ergonomics, injury management and prevention
- Sporting teams keeping athletes on the field
- Aged care facilities for pain management and mobility
- The disability sector improving independence
This range is refreshing. It offers variety to a clinician and it gives us the option to dip our toes in the water. Also, it speaks to our skill set. In particular, its versatility.
But this broadness of scope asks some hairy questions of the profession.
On the job
For starters, it’s possible to work in all of the above settings (and more) without any specialised training. Sure, there’ll be on-the-job guidance (in most cases) but it’s often of the ‘learn as you work’ style. Formal upskilling before starting a new role doesn’t exist.
So, when we do start a position:
- Will we be assured in our skills?
- Will we be competent?
- Is it fair for our patients?
- Could it reflect poorly on the organisation we’re working for, and even the profession?
A cost or an investment?
Job-specific training isn’t easy or cheap to implement. There’s the cost for resources like the educator’s wage. And there’s the time it takes too. When a company is desperate for workers but has to train them before they can start, what do they do in the meantime?
For now, the imperative is with the individual. They’ll do more study if they like the field they’ve chosen. Working on a post-graduate degree, for example.
But perhaps the physiotherapy governing body (and employers too) should think more closely about the current approach to learning. After all, everyone looks good if a clinician is consistently delivering a higher level of care.
Let’s look at an example:
New Graduate physiotherapist, Karl, lands a job at an aged care centre. He undergoes an induction program. This includes manual handling training, understanding the reporting systems as well as the processes of the facility. Then, Karl gets to work.
He gets guidance and feedback during his early months. And, with this, his skill set improves.
Karl reflects on his time at the aged care centre at the three-month mark. He likes it and can see himself spending more time in this field developing and becoming more proficient.
The three-month mark is also significant because it’s the point where an employee must sign up to further specialisation training if they see their career progressing (like Karl). This training is complementary (and complimentary) to the work.
Karl speaks with his manager and soon he starts the specialisation program. As he learns, he has the opportunity to apply his new skills directly to his workplace. His level of care improves so the residents’ benefit. He gets better at his job so he is satisfied most days. He does effective work which keeps his manager happy. The organisation runs better as a result.
We can extrapolate that Karl’s work (and that of his likeminded colleagues) will enhance the reputation of the aged care centre. Therefore, drawing more interest from potential residents.
From ubiquitous to unique
We can see how this model of specialisation unfolds. Karl can clearly define himself as an aged care physiotherapist. He has a general set of physiotherapy skills, like knowledge of the body and manual therapy techniques.
Then, after deciding to dedicate part (or all) of his professional career to the aged care sector, he acquires distinctive abilities too. Like advanced manual handling techniques, a refined knowledge of chronic pain and how to motivate the elderly, for instance.
The questions we started with at the top of this post become less ambiguous:
- Why do people seek Karl out?
Because they want to tap into his expert knowledge about maximising their quality of life in their older years. They want to know how to better manage their chronic back pain. They want his advice about what exercise is appropriate and sustainable as well as how to move better in general.
- What differentiates Karl from other health professionals?
Not only does Karl have an excellent grounding in the fundamentals of physiotherapy. But he has special abilities when it comes to working with the elderly. Specifically, assisting them to understand their bodies (at their particular life stage), including best practice for maintenance and getting the most out of it.
- What skills and knowledge makes Karl unique?
Specialist knowledge related to the elderly and aged care. That is, optimising function in this unique subpopulation.
- Where does Karl fit into the health care puzzle?
He improves the quality of life and independence of the elderly. He has the ability to reduce their pain, diminish their financial burden (for their families and the government too) as well as lessen the emotional strain (by improving understanding and independence) for all parties involved.
We have the talent and there is a need. It’s time we took the initiative to differentiate our profession. We’ll maximise our abilities and better serve the community too.
What do you think? Are you happy with where the profession is at from a skills perspective? What can we do to improve? Comment below!