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Joining the physiotherapy workforce 
Marcus Dripps

Determining the right number of physiotherapists in the Australian health system to meet the needs of the community is a complex exercise. While there continue to be job vacancies in some areas, particularly in regional, rural and remote Australia, there are increasing numbers of physiotherapy graduates who report having difficulty finding their first job.

It used to be the case that the majority of physiotherapists would start their careers in the public health system. Hospitals in particular would provide many positions rotating through various different clinical areas, and provide early career physiotherapists with an opportunity to try different areas of clinical practice, refine their skills, and settle into their new profession. After this new graduate year, physiotherapists would then be better positioned to choose their early career pathway.

This option is no longer available to the majority of physiotherapists.

With the combination of changes to the structure of public hospital workforces and the increasing number of physiotherapy graduates, working for your first year in a public hospital is no longer accessible to most physiotherapists.

So this brings into focus two issues. Firstly, how well prepared are other work settings to support early career physiotherapists? With a gradual shift in the private practice market towards larger clinics, increasingly structured mentoring and professional development opportunities exist in many practices. In my view, the market is moving to fill this gap, and despite ongoing conversations about how ‘private practice ready’ graduates may be, change is underway. The APA is increasingly providing a greater range of support to graduates and practices.

Arguably, the exception to this trend has been driven by more and more GP clinics starting up their own physio and allied health clinics ‘on the side’. In this model, newer graduates are not able to access peer support in the workplace. While the APA has a role in providing professional development to members, there is nothing like having direct access to a senior colleague in the workplace. This challenge also applies to newer graduates who decide to set up their own clinic for a variety of reasons, possibly including a lack of alternate options.

The second, and perhaps more complex question, is how many physiotherapists is enough?

The dramatic rise in the number of programs of study in the last decade has already placed enormous pressure on clinical training places. It would be a shame to see a continuation of this trend further exacerbate challenges of retention of physiotherapists, and make it even harder to construct meaningful career paths for clinicians.

Currently, in one state, it appears that at least a further four physiotherapy programs are being considered. In my view, it is time for a profession-wide discussion on how many students we should be graduating each year—the potential implications for our capacity to train quality clinicians (particularly providing quality clinical placements), provide meaningful careers and meet the current and future health needs of the community.

APA National President

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