How to become a physiotherapist and what they do
Physiotherapists use physical, non-surgical methods to help people who are recovering from injury or affected by a health condition. For example, they might massage them, manipulate their body or take them through a series of exercises to aid rehabilitation. Becoming a physiotherapist requires a degree.
Below we take you through what a physiotherapist does and how to become one in much more detail. We’ve included plenty of personal insights from Kate Chadney, a senior specialist musculoskeletal physiotherapist working for Healthshare (a private provider that only deals with NHS contracts).
How to become a physiotherapist
To become a physiotherapist you need to either take an undergraduate (first) degree in physiotherapy, or a degree in another subject followed by a masters degree in physiotherapy. Your degree will combine theory with work placements to give you practical experience.
Entry requirements for physiotherapy degrees vary from university to university. Below we’ve given examples for school leavers with some of the most common qualifications, such as A levels, Scottish Highers and the IB. However, universities typically accept a range of qualifications, such as vocational qualifications (eg BTECs and SVQs), access to higher education diplomas and qualifications from other countries, so check their websites for full details.
Kate summarises her own route as follows: ‘I took ten GCSEs and three A levels (biology, English and history) followed by a BSc [undergraduate degree] in physiotherapy.'
Entry requirements for undergraduate physiotherapy degrees in England and Wales
At English and Welsh universities, asking for biology, human biology or PE as one of your A level/IB/Scottish Higher subjects is typical. However, sometimes you must have biology or human biology and PE won’t do instead. Other universities like science subjects but accept a broader mix.
Entry requirements for undergraduate physiotherapy degrees in Scotland
Scottish universities tend to like science subjects and English.
Entry requirements for undergraduate physiotherapy degrees in Northern Ireland
In Northern Ireland, you can study BSc physiotherapy at Ulster University.
Entry requirements for masters degrees in physiotherapy
Masters degrees that qualify you as a physiotherapist typically last two years full time and are described as ‘pre-registration’ – this differentiates them from masters degrees that are aimed at qualified physiotherapists who want to study in more depth.
You’ll typically need an undergraduate degree in a subject that relates to biology (subjects/modules to do with human biology are the most useful). Sports science is typically accepted. Check individual universities’ entry requirements carefully if you’re thinking of going down this route.
What does a physiotherapist do and which areas can they specialise in?
Kate explains a physiotherapist’s job role as follows: ‘There are different specialities within physiotherapy including neurology [patients with damage or disease affecting the central nervous system, such as brain injury or Parkinson’s disease], respiratory [patients with conditions that cause breathing difficulties, such as cystic fibrosis], musculoskeletal [patients with muscle, tendon or joint problems, among others] and paediatrics [child patients]. All focus on the rehabilitation and management of a person who suffers from acute/chronic medical conditions, to help them achieve a better quality of life.’
Physiotherapists use a range of techniques. These include manipulating and massaging affected areas on patients’ behalf, helping them to carry out exercises under guidance (for example using hydrotherapy), advising and educating, and using techniques such as acupuncture or the application of mild electric currents.
Most physiotherapists have jobs in the NHS but some work elsewhere. For example, they can work in private hospitals or clinics, or in sports settings, or they can be self-employed.
Kate’s career as a musculoskeletal physiotherapist
In terms of her own work as a musculoskeletal physiotherapist, Kate comments: ‘My workplace is split between an outpatients department in a hospital and a GP's surgery. I have appointments with patients who have been referred from their GP to have some physio for a musculoskeletal problem, such as whiplash, back pain (chronic or acute), knee injuries, joint problems (for example arthritis) and sports injuries. I also treat patients who have planned (elective) operations such as hip/knee/shoulder replacements or if they have sustained any trauma such as broken bones or ligament reconstructions.
‘I have to liaise closely with other health professionals including GPs, specialist doctors and radiologists to provide a comprehensive treatment for each individual patient. They are treated mainly through exercise-based therapy and manual therapy but there is also a lot of educating the patient about their condition and enabling them to self manage.’
The best bits of a physiotherapy career
Kate says that her favourite aspect of her job is ‘interaction with a very diverse group of people – all ages, ethnicities, nationalities and socio-economic backgrounds’.
Skills physiotherapists need
Physiotherapists need to be good with people and not mind close physical contact with others. Kate comments that they require: ‘Good communication skills, empathy, the ability to work under pressure and a lack of squeamishness!’