Clinical practice isn’t for everyone. Tamsin Starr speaks to five physiotherapists about the alternative career paths they’ve pursued
‘If hands-on clinical practice isn’t for you, for whatever reason, it does not make you any less of a physiotherapist,’ exclaims Emma Webster, who swapped private practice for a career in academia after she had a stroke three years ago.
She has joined a growing number of physiotherapists who have decided to use their academic, clinical and personal experience to make a difference to people’s lives in a non-clinical setting.
Physiotherapy skills can equip you for a broad range of roles, from marketing to business to policy-making. And rather than being wasted, all your training can all be applied to those new roles. ‘We’re so well trained in clinical reasoning, decision-making, communications and interpersonal skills that our strengths are easily transferable to other careers,’ says physiotherapist Jonathon Kruger, now CEO of international member organisation World Physiotherapy.
While alternative careers remain popular among people with disabilities like Emma, they are also finding favour with those wanting greater flexibility than a traditional role may offer.
Frontline speaks to five physiotherapists who are living proof that the profession is more varied than many may think. So whether you’re wanting to widen your job choices or are simply wanting to take your career in a different direction, find inspiration from trailblazers across the profession.
Name: Dr Emma Webster
Job title: academic and guest lecturer
Current work: research into stroke rehabilitation
Qualification level: MSc physiotherapy (pre-registration); PhD in musculoskeletal biology and biomechanics
Reason for pursuing alternative career path: exercise-induced stroke at the age of 28
If she hadn’t done this, she would have: started up her own clinic
Three years ago, Emma Webster was having a well-deserved rest after an intensive personal training session when a pounding headache gripped her. Confused and disorientated, she woke her family who recognised the symptoms of a stroke and called 999. Unfortunately for Emma, because she had epilepsy, the emergency call centre thought she was having an epileptic seizure. This misdiagnosis meant the ambulance took an hour to get to her – a delay that likely contributed to her losing dexterity in her left side.
She was just three months into her career as a physiotherapist, flourishing in her first job at a thriving private practice when it happened. ‘I was devastated,’ she admits. ‘My first thought was, “Oh no my career is over before it’s begun. How can I become a physio if I can’t get my hands on anyone?” I was gutted that it had been taken away from me.’
She’d had a carotid dissection during exercise, leading to the stroke, and years of rehab that still continues. ‘I’d always hoped I could get enough function to get back into practice but I slowly came to realise I wouldn’t have the dexterity to do it,’ she explains.
But rather than give up, three years later Emma decided to put her clinical knowledge, academic skills and personal experience to work, driving forward a research project to help improve outcomes for young stroke survivors.
She’d contacted a scientist whose research she was interested in to enquire about a job when she was offered an even more enticing challenge.
The team at Manchester Metropolitan University offered to collaborate with Emma on a new research study that aims to identify and understand the challenges young stroke survivors face in real-world environments. ‘I was thrilled that they wanted to work with me,’ she says. ‘Writing a research proposal is a lot of work, so the fact they are prepared to do that with me means a great deal. ‘And the subject matter means so much to me physically, professionally and personally.’
The proposed research will involve documenting young stroke survivors’ perceptions of the challenges and then relating these to their actual performance within these environments, in the first study of its kind ‘Sadly, younger stroke survivors are neglected in research, there’s a view that it’s only older people that have strokes,’ says Emma. ‘This study aims to change that.’
Reflecting on her change of direction, Emma says, ‘It’s easy to think there are no alternatives to a hands-on clinical career in physiotherapy. Now I wonder, “Was this a twist of fate? Was I meant to do this after all?”
‘I can make people feel better by improving the field of knowledge and linking that to best practice. I can change hundreds of lives without touching anyone.’
She has also found support from a thriving community of physiotherapists with disabilities, working in and out of clinical setting through the CSP DisAbility Network.
She is now a co-convenor for the network, adding, ‘We’re a very friendly, open and welcoming source of support, so do join us. And we’re always happy to be approached for careers or other advice - if we don’t know the answer we’ll find someone to help you.’
She believes the greatest lesson her experience has taught her is, ‘Physio careers can go in so many directions – you can apply your skills and knowledge to any number of fulfilling and important non-clinical roles, whether it’s your first job or you’re simply looking for a change.’
Name: Reena Patel
Job title: CSP Education Adviser
Current employer: Chartered Society of Physiotherapy Qualification level: BSc Hons Physiotherapy, MSc Multicultural Issues in Health, PhD (ongoing)
Reason for pursuing alternative career path: Interests, passion and skill set.
If she hadn’t done this, she would have: Marie Kondo-ing people’s homes
‘As important as clinical practice is, it’s only one of the four pillars of practice,’ says CSP education adviser Reena Patel; the others being leadership, education and research. ‘My interests lie in the other pillars and that’s OK. I still contribute to moving the profession forward.’
She admits quiet determination kept her going when she changed direction after five years’ clinical practice, undertaking a Masters in Multicultural Issues in Health and taking up a lecturer-practitioner role teaching undergraduate physiotherapy students for 13 years en-route to her current role.
‘When I started working in full-time academia I was often asked “How are you maintaining your registration if you’re not practising?” Implying what I was doing was not ‘proper physio’.
‘But as soon as you step away from clinical practice, your transferable skill set broadens and you have an opportunity to see the wider influences that shape patient care.’
As a CSP education adviser, Reena’s focus is on the accreditation of physiotherapy programmes and she plays a key role in sharing best practice across the university sector.
‘I am involved in so many things, from interacting with students and universities to managing different projects such as the pre-registration education review and the CSP Mentoring Platform. No day is ever the same.’
She believes networking can help unlock alternative career opportunities and cites the mentoring platform as an example of how connections can be formed. ‘Reaching out for support and building a network is key. It’s there for you to access but you have to be proactive in seeking out these opportunities, they won’t just come to you.’
One of the biggest benefits of her ‘portfolio career’ has been the opportunity to grow beyond her comfort zone. ‘I have learned that you don’t have to do one job, you can and mix it up a bit across all four pillars of practice, which keeps you on your toes.’
While acknowledging the challenges of following an alternative path, she urges others to be true to themselves. ‘Listen to your inner voice. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there just because it’s different to what others around you are doing, if it sparks an interest go for it.’
Name: Georgina Eckersley
Job title: Teaching fellow in cardiorespiratory therapy and PhD student
Current employer: Keele University
Qualification level: BSc in physiotherapy, MSc in cardiorespiratory physiotherapy, postgraduate certificate in teaching and learning in higher education and clinical leadership
Reason for pursuing alternative career path: to teach full time and pursue a research career
If she hadn’t done this, she would have: Wedding photographer as she enjoys being creative
Georgina Eckersley has a more personal reason than many for wanting every physiotherapist she trains to be the best possible professional. ‘Physio gave me my dad back,’ she reveals, explaining how her father’s treatment after a heart bypass left a lasting impression on her.
She was 12 when he was taken to hospital for the surgery, and admits she would ‘tag along to every rehab session’ seeing physio exercises slowly return her father to the man he was before.
After fulfilling her lifelong ambition of qualifying as a physiotherapist she spent six years in the NHS where, as a band 6, she took on some clinical education teaching duties. ‘I realised that helping someone to develop their skills was what I liked most about the job so when a teaching job came up, I went for it,’ she explains.
She lights up when talking about guiding undergraduates through their first steps. ‘Going from their first encounter with a topic, attempting a skill for the first time to the moment when they get it – that’s the best bit.’
She is keen to go the extra mile for her students. After all, one of her lecturers changed her life when he spotted her dyslexia in her first term as an undergraduate. ‘He took one look at my handwritten work done in a whole load of coloured pens and sent me off to the Disability Services.’
She confesses to struggling with her diagnosis initially. ‘My first reaction when they told me I was dyslexic was to say, “I’m not, I’m fine”” I had a bit of an identity crisis. Then it suddenly made sense as to why I struggled at school.’ With support in place she was passing every exam.
She is quick to point out physiotherapy is open to anyone with a disability. ‘Reasonable adjustments support people with disabilities to gain access, and reduce barriers, but it’s also about the person knowing themselves as an individual and what support they need. So I need to carry a notebook because on a bad day my short-term memory is very poor.’
Her dyslexia certainly hasn’t dimmed her enthusiasm for studying. ‘Since I started this job eight years ago I’ve completed a masters, a teaching certificate, enrolled on a PhD and I’ve had two years of maternity leave in between!’ Teaching other physios has provided its own lessons.
‘It makes you look more critically at the approaches we’re taking and the interventions we’re using,’ she points out. ‘And it really gives me the sense my work still contributes to the clinical, because early experiences student physios are exposed to influence what they do on the wards.’
Thinking back to her 12-year-old self watching her father’s transformation, she reflects that her ultimate goal is to make as many patient experiences as good as her family’s. ‘In my job there is an element of role modelling and inspiring my students - through that I am making them better professionals.’
Name: Jonathon Kruger
Job title: Chief Executive Officer
Employed by: World Physiotherapy
Qualifications: BA in Physiotherapy, MSc in Public Health, graduate certificate in Health and Medical Law
Reason for pursuing alternative career path: to impact whole healthcare systems
If he hadn’t done this, he would have: become a theatre set designer
For Jonathon Kruger, the light bulb moment that took his career in a different direction came after five years in clinical roles as a physiotherapist - right in the middle of his annual appraisal. ‘My department manager challenged me on what I was really interested in, when I realised I could help one person at a time, but I was more interested in how to help groups, impact the bigger picture, even change the whole health system,’ he explains.
This inspired him to complete a masters in public health then apply his clinical and academic experience to a lobbying for better healthcare in his native Australia.
He describes this period as a policy and advocacy lead for the Australian Medical Association (AMA) as full of ‘wow moments’.
‘I’d be working on an issue on Monday and by Wednesday it would be on the front pages of the tabloids - that ability to influence, control and improve a whole healthcare system was intoxicating.’
A variety of increasingly senior roles across in policy and advocacy followed, until he stepped into his current role as CEO of professional body World Physiotherapy five years ago. He is as driven to change healthcare today as he was at the AMA, except now he is influencing systems and structures across the world. He gives an example of World Physiotherapy’s work in Tajikistan, central Asia, where they are supporting the country’s only physiotherapist establish the profession. ‘For me, the job is about having better health systems and stronger member organisations around the world – that’s what gives me the joy in my job.’
But if you’re not ready to take the leap just yet, Jonathon’s advice is: ‘Try before you buy. Look for opportunities where you are – make it known you’re interested in a non-clinical secondment. Every hospital usually has a variety of special non-clinical projects that you could take on so you can see if that is something that interests you.’
Name: Carrie Woodhouse
Job title: Disability analyst
Current work: Assessing people for disability benefit
Qualification level: BSc in physiotherapy, postgraduate diploma in veterinary physiotherapy
Reason for pursuing alternative career path: family-friendly working
If she hadn’t done this, she would have: become a veterinary physiotherapist
Mum-of-two Carrie Woodhouse takes a deep breath when she thinks back to her time on the wards. She is visually impaired and has a guide dog called Amber, and admits she’d do things differently if she could start her career again.
‘I would go in and say, “This is me, I’m not apologising for it.”’ she admits. Instead she spent all her time ‘panicking I was going to walk into something and thinking I’d be an inconvenience if I asked for an adjustment’.
Shift patterns meant juggling work and family was a challenge, too, and Carrie found herself exhausted almost as soon as her day had started. When the chance to work Monday to Thursday from home as a disability assessor came up, she made the jump without hesitation. ‘It’s been life changing,’ she says.
‘Stepping out of a clinical role was the best thing I could have done. If I need to be with my children now, I can manage my day around it.’
And it’s not just about being a better mum, it’s improved her health and wellbeing too. ‘Working from home I’m not concentrating on seeing all the time, so it’s taken all the fatigue out of my day,’ she says.
She cites flexibility (thanks to her free Fridays she’s completed a postgraduate diploma in veterinary science), and feeling valued from management as the best aspects to her role, though pay progression comes a close third. ‘I’ve been in this job for one year and it would have taken me a decade in the NHS to reach the salary I’m on now.
Her advice for those at a crossroads is clear. ‘Try something else! You can always go back.’
Name: Euan McComiskie
Job title: Professional Adviser (Digital, Data & Northern Ireland)
Current employer: Chartered Society of Physiotherapy
Qualification level: BSc in Sports Science, MSc in physiotherapy
Reason for pursuing alternative career path: to get a buzz from the job
If he hadn’t done this, he would have: become a farmer, like many in his family
At first glance it may not seem like there’s much in common between informatics and physiotherapy. However, professional adviser for the CSP Euan McComiskie, who specialises in digital and data, disagrees. ‘Physiotherapy requires you to gather data from patients, consult evidence and compute it into treatment plans. Now, instead of looking at how a joint or person moves, I look at a piece of software, check what does it do to other pieces of software and how it changes when it does that - I’m still thinking like a clinician.’
It’s quite the change of direction for this rugby-loving Scotsman, who had his initial career pathway as a sports physiotherapist all mapped out. ‘When I tried sports physio I just didn’t get a buzz, it wasn’t for me,’ he admits.
After a number of rotations failing to find his real niche, he fell into his current career by accident when he deputised to attend an informatics meeting. ‘I loved the challenge of informatics - the breadth, the depth, the technical elements, the geekiness,’ he says. ‘It’s a field where if you think something’s a good idea you can back yourself, learn from it and once you’ve got it working, share it widely!’
As a digital and data adviser for CSP, he can share his enthusiasm with the 3,000 members of the professional network Digital and Informatics Physiotherapy Group, which he founded.
He also regularly speaks to members at conferences and through other online platforms, spreading the message that ‘everyone has a role in digital and informatics, and there are always ways to bring more technology into your practice, which we can help with’.
He remains grateful to the chance meeting which led to his career change. ‘If I hadn’t tried informatics I would still be bouncing around clinical practice trying to find something that fits.
‘Supporting members to use technology in clinical services, helping to make a difference to patients and making physios’ lives slightly easier, gives me that buzz.’
For help or support visit the CSP DisAbility network; call the CSP enquiries line on 020 7306 6666 or contact your local CSP steward.
Number of subscribers: 3