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Physiotherapy explained

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: (Published 01 January 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:060124
  1. Ciaran Scott Hill, chartered physiotherapist and fourth year medical student1
  1. 1Barts and The Royal London School of Medicine, London

A physiotherapist can be a great ally to doctors and medical students. Ciaran Scott Hill tells you what physiotherapists really do and explains how we can get the most out of them


After five years and countless late nights, I've now completed my physiotherapy degree and am in my penultimate year of the graduate entry medicine programme at Bart's and the Royal London School of Medicine. Throughout my training I've seen many similarities between physiotherapy and medicine and an even greater number of misconceptions on both sides. This is especially important in the current culture of multidisciplinary teamwork. Physiotherapists are the third largest group of healthcare providers after nurses and doctors, but general knowledge about them is limited and they are often stereotyped as masseuses, granny draggers, and physioterrorists. Be careful with these stereotypes as they are outdated, inaccurate, and unsurprisingly they are likely to cause offence.

What is physiotherapy?

It is difficult to summarise physiotherapy (also known as physical therapy in some countries) as a profession. The workload is split between the broad categories of musculoskeletal, cardiorespiratory, and neurology specialties. Physiotherapists analyse movement and use specific handling techniques, exercise plans, and manipulations to treat an eclectic range of conditions. They may also use adjuncts to their hands on skills, such as massage and electrotherapy. Physiotherapists are specialists in rehabilitation of all disciplines and you'd be hard pushed to find an area that physios don't work in. There is even a large number of mental health specialists.

Physiotherapy training

Entry to the physiotherapy degree course is extremely competitive, with about 20-40 applicants per place at each university. Typically, a successful applicant will have three A levels with grades of at least BBB. Physiotherapy is a three year bachelor of science degree (BSc (Hons)) course in England and Wales, or a four year course in …

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