Practice educators: with great power comes great responsibility

The experience physio students have whilst on placement can be impacted by the levels of empathy that their practice educators provide. It’s a responsibility we all need remember, as CSP professional adviser Sara Conroy explains

Practice educators

Back in September 2021 we said a big thank you to practice educators for helping to grow the next generation of physiotherapists and for playing this tough but hugely pivotal role. 

We suggested that practice educator’s words and actions were crucial to student development, having the ability to shape, build and grow our future workforce and create a sense of belonging, ensuring we welcome all into our amazing profession.

Since then, the CSP has launched its equity, diversity and belonging strategy. An anticipated outcome of the strategy is to ensure the diversity of the profession reflects diversity in society. 

We want to ensure that physiotherapy is seen as an inclusive and welcoming profession that values diversity and difference.  We want the diversity of graduates from physiotherapy preregistration programmes to reflect the diversity in society. We want to ensure that the populations we serve recognise their place in our services, making them more likely to seek access. 

Achieving this ambition will help our profession to be agile, to be creative in the challenges we face, to grow and ultimately be successful. We will do more, be more and achieve more. We will be better placed to transform the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities. We need such diversity.

Our universities have a significant role to play here as after all they are the gatekeepers to our profession.  Our education teamwork with our providers to ensure that this is considered and to encourage greater diversity in who gains a place to study physiotherapy. While in university our students are in a very safe, nurturing environment. Course tutors can work to ensure inclusivity and help address additional needs. 

What practice educators can do

Practice educators, what are you doing to help achieve our diversity ambition? Do you agree that the next generation must be diverse and not a carbon copy of what you know? 

Have you as a practice educator thought about what you can do differently? Have you considered your own personal biases and cultural awareness? Have you put yourself in the student’s shoes and considered how you can help all students feel welcome and at ease? For some students this really can be the difference between staying in the profession or not.  

Principle three in our practice-based learning principles addresses this in more detail. Do have a look: it allows you to assess yourself to see what you are already doing well and what areas you must improve on.  

I expect many of you are nodding and thinking this is obvious, but there is evidence to suggest we’re not doing this well in practice. One Muslim student told us how she was the only non-white person in the physiotherapy team. The only person wearing a hijab. She didn’t feel welcomed and felt different from the outset. She was termed unprofessional for using too much hand sanitiser and putting it on her arms. 

The practice educator did not ask her why; just criticised. Had they been culturally aware they would have known that Muslims pray five times a day and before prayers they are expected to perform a purification ritual called Wudu, requiring that they wash their faces, hands, arms, and feet. Further, when requesting a 30 minute later start on Eid to enable them to pray at their local mosque it was frowned upon. 

It was even suggested when she joined her practice educator on the ward not long after 9am, that it was her fault that they wouldn’t see all of their patients that day. They are no longer a student physiotherapist. They left. 

Creating a sense of belonging and striving for a more diverse profession is all of our business. As practice educators you have a huge role to play. We can all remember the best, and the worst placement experiences we had; most likely the common denominator being your educator. Your actions and words could be the difference between a student physiotherapist being inspired and part of the future of the profession or walking away. 

For Marvel fans, as Uncle Ben said, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ Make sure you use it wisely. 

A student’s experience

A new graduate, who trained in the Midlands but is from and works in London, says:

‘Training to be a physiotherapist in the Midlands as a young Black woman was an interesting and character-building experience, to say the least.

‘There were some places where you felt no different and others where you felt hyperaware of your race. There were places where you felt like you could show up as your complete self and others where you had to make yourself appear more palatable. 

‘How inclusive your placement provider was could make or break a placement experience because the way in which you are welcomed and treated in a team ultimately defines how much you enjoy and take away from the placement.’

Professional advice team

The CSP’s Professional Advice Service gives advice and support to members on complex and specialist enquiries about physiotherapy practice, including professional practice issues, standards, values and behaviours, international working, service design and commissioning, and policy in practice.

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