An interview with the newly qualified physio, who believes learning is a two-way street between students and graduates. Catherine Turnbull reports
James Armstrong is someone who lives and breathes physiotherapy and strives to learn more and pass on advice.
His philosophy is to empower students and fellow graduates and colleagues, as well as his patients.
The band 5 rotational physio at Derriford Hospital in Plymouth, Devon, promotes ongoing learning, sharing tips, best practice and evidence on multiple platforms. He was a CSP rep at university and has now become a member of the CSP South West regional network.
His earlier careers in marketing, management consultancy, training and business development gave him excellent communication skills, and an ability and eagerness to share his love for physiotherapy.
‘I did a biology degree after school at the University of Northampton and always had an interest in anatomy and physiology and the human body,’ James says. ‘However, I worked in business after that and it wasn’t until I was 33 years old that I started a BSc physiotherapy degree at the University of Plymouth.’
A keen runner and athletics coach, it was through injury that he discovered sports massage, gained some qualifications in that, but then realised he wanted to train as a physio to treat people in pain, so he went to university.
During his degree he had several five-week placements. ‘I was happy to go anywhere and was totally focussed on physio, so I had placements around the south west and gained a broad range of experience – respiratory (in intensive care), neuro, MSK (outpatients), community rehab, and paediatrics. At my university, student placements have moved to acute, community and outpatient settings. This focuses on areas, rather than specialities.’
What did he find most useful on placement? ‘The opportunity to have time with patients – learning to manage those with problems – as when we ‘treat’ each other at university we are ailment-free.
‘Placement enables you to get out of your comfort zone and gain experience through seeing lots of physios doing things differently and learning from them.
‘It’s a safe environment to get it wrong. I quickly learned that as I made small mistakes, I discovered what I did wrong and how to improve and try again. I learned not to fear making mistakes.’
Be proactive on your placements
His tips for students on placement are to be proactive, enthusiastic and inquisitive. ‘I suggest that they should do some reading and research before they ask their educator a question, then suggest something they have learned and ask what they think.
‘By being proactive in their self-guided learning, which leads to a big boost in marks, they can demonstrate that learning is not just one way.’
He found that having a qualified physio assigned as a placement educator, trained by the local university, to mark and support students was ‘massively helpful’.
He loved his placements so much that he realised it would be difficult to choose a specialism. ‘It did make me pleased that I had chosen physiotherapy as there are so many options,’ he says.
‘You can name any sector of the population and there is a specialist physio. I’ve kept my mind open.’
He also advises students to leave the grades at the door. ‘It took me until my final year to realise that rather than worry about grades, it’s better to enjoy and relax in the placement, absorb the information, which in my case led to better grades. Just relish the experience.’
Learning through teaching
James qualified in June last year and, due to the government’s accelerated registration programme to get health professionals into hospitals during the first wave of the pandemic, he was able to start work as a band 5 while he finished his degree. He is working in acute medical rehab on the wards at Derriford Hospital with older people.
We need to reassure students that physios are working in multiple clinical areas at this point and the learning that they have during this period will help them in their future careers'
James was delighted when a student was allocated to his ward and worked alongside him and he fed back to the student’s educator.
‘It was amazing,’ he says. ‘I felt privileged to be in that position, just six months after I was a student myself.’
He believes that learning is not a one-way street and says the student helped him learn as a new band 5.
‘When someone is shadowing you, there is a pressure on you to do extra-thorough assessments, that your treatments are evidence-based, and you can clinically explain everything to the student.
‘This keeps you on your toes and prevents bad habits developing. You also teach and explain how physiotherapy helps certain conditions, how to analyse blood results etc. It drew out my knowledge and consolidated it.
‘It was a real boost to share my knowledge with a student. Because of my previous job in training I was able to utilise those skills as well.’
Keep an open-minded attitude
He urges physios to be open to students’ ideas. James’s student was proactive and came up with some great solutions and it was valuable for him to be open to suggestions from someone who observes in an unbiased way.
‘She taught me as well. She made a presentation to the team about patients’ fear of falling and then we implemented some of her points and it changed some of our practice,’ he says.
‘I am proud of and motivated by my continued love for helping new physiotherapists joining this amazing profession. They have three years learning and now I enjoy my job every day, so they have that to look forward to.’
James is so keen to inspire physiotherapy students and help them progress in their careers that he has his own YouTube channel, packed full of tips, study hacks and interviews. Subjects he has addressed in his video posts include how to apply for your first band 5 position and prepare for your interview, a Twitter guide for physios, AHPs and students, and preparing for placements.
‘These resources weren’t around when I was a student, so it is good to give back and share my experiences.’
The CSP says:
‘Newly qualified physios are perfectly placed to support students and both parties can benefit hugely. As James demonstrated, having the opportunity to be shadowed can be a valuable self-reflective exercise on your own abilities to communicate, collaborate, delegate and inspire. You’re never too new to share your experiences and knowledge with others.
In fact, it has never been more important to support students on placement. Whether you’re a new Band 5, a support worker or senior management, everyone can play a role in providing opportunities for students to learn as well as ensuring that they feel welcomed, supported and valued.’
Steph Berns, CSP student coordinator
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