Salute the unsung heroes

Physiotherapy support workers are the bedrock of service so it’s time we supported them says Karen Middleton

Karen Middleton:salute the unsung heroes

I was talking to final year physiotherapy students recently about the experience of starting work and how it differs from student life. When I was describing my own experience, I was struck by how many times I talked about the physiotherapy support worker I worked with and then started to think about all the different physiotherapy support workers I had worked with throughout my career. 

When I first worked on neurosurgery, a specialism I had not covered during my training, I can honestly say I was pretty terrified and then, on my second day, my senior physiotherapist went on three weeks leave. It was now down to me and Beryl. The term ‘Imposter Syndrome’ goes nowhere near describing the sheer terror I felt going on the ward in the morning, but Beryl had seen it all before; she knew most of the patients, she knew all the staff and, most importantly, she had encountered ‘terrified new graduate syndrome’ before too. She handled me with kid-gloves, enabling me to remember I knew more than I at first thought and that I could apply principles and techniques in different ways to facilitate the rehabilitation of people in very vulnerable situations. My confidence grew each day and I ‘survived’ the rotation. 

When I worked in hydrotherapy, having assessed, diagnosed and treated patients, it was often over the cup of tea afterwards, or while being helped to dress the patient, that Terry, my support worker, would find what was really bothering the patient or the question they really wanted answered. We were definitely a team and I respected him as much as he respected me. The multi-disciplinary team definitely includes support workers.

Those early experiences set the tone for all the years I worked alongside support workers, whether the more generic rehabilitation support workers or those specifically working in physiotherapy – it was a partnership. What strikes me now is that these experiences highlight important facts about our support workers – they are highly capable individuals and frequently the absolute bedrock of the service and the physiotherapy we offer to patients. 

As physiotherapists look to advance roles, there will inevitably be opportunity for support workers to advance and extend their roles too, requiring further upskilling and training. It is also clear that this is a growing part of the physiotherapy workforce and I am keen that the CSP is viewed as the go-to organisation to support them both professionally and as a trade union. In the CSP therefore, the ways in which we advance, support, champion and engage with support workers needs to evolve. 

Earlier this year we appointed a new professional adviser Claire Fordham to lead on our support worker agenda.  Claire’s role is not just about serving our existing Associate membership and recruiting more. In fact, we know that the most effective way of recruiting members is through face to face contact; it is actually our existing members in the workplace place that are ideally placed to engage directly with support workers and encourage them to join.

Claire’s role is to work across the organisation and in the wider world of practice to guide the development and implementation of our strategic plans on support worker issues. This includes everything from lobbying on behalf of the CSP to partners who shape and deliver support worker education, to working with members to co-produce new materials and resources.       

As we move forwards, it will be important that our work extends to supporting registered members to be critical of historic workforce models and think innovatively to optimize support workers’ contribution to practice. Of greater importance will be the need to ensure support workers and Associate members see that what is offered by the CSP supports their visibility within the profession, their development, and their contribution to the rapidly expanding services physiotherapy offers.  We already have a comprehensive offer to support workers who join us as Associate members and we welcome into membership any support worker who undertakes delegated physiotherapy duties. We do know that we need to do redouble our efforts to encourage more support workers into CSP membership and this aim will form part of our plans for 2019. 



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