How to become a physiotherapist without going to university in the UK

Updated 12 September 2023

Physiotherapists, or physical therapists, often work with patients living with illnesses or chronic conditions and also help those recovering from injuries or surgeries. For individuals who want to become a physiotherapist, going to university is just one of the various ways to enter the profession. Exploring different ways to pursue the role may help you decide which is suitable for you. In this article, we explain how to become a physiotherapist without going to university in the UK, outline the role's daily duties and list key skills for these professionals.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

What is a physiotherapist?

A physiotherapist works with patients that have physical issues caused by illness, injury, disability or ageing. Physical therapists meet with patients to assess their needs, goals and limitations. Then, they use their knowledge of human anatomy, physiology and rehabilitation techniques to develop treatment plans. Physiotherapists may also instruct patients on proper ways to exercise at home. As physical treatment progresses, they review patients' progress.

Related: How to become a physiotherapist: a step-by-step guide

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How to become a physiotherapist without going to university in the UK

Learning how to become a physiotherapist without going to university in the UK may help you create a career development plan that aligns with your background and available resources. Going back to school full-time is not always necessary for future physiotherapists, but engaging in some form of learning before you start working with patients is a requirement. Here are the steps to becoming a physiotherapist without completing a full-time undergraduate university course:

1. Become an apprentice

If going to university full-time to obtain a bachelor's degree in physiotherapy isn't something you want to do, then another suitable option is to apply for an apprenticeship in physiotherapy. A physiotherapist degree apprenticeship is a level 6 qualification that usually takes around four years to complete. When choosing an apprenticeship, make sure it has accreditation from the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), which is the official regulatory body for physiotherapists.

To qualify for a physiotherapy apprenticeship, it's mandatory to have at least two A-levels, including biology, or equivalent qualifications. It also requires you to find an employer who's likely to fund your learning and recruit you as their part-time employee. What's beneficial about apprenticeships is that they allow you to start using and improving your physiotherapy skills and knowledge almost immediately.

Related: How do apprenticeships work? Including levels and types

2. Complete a postgraduate course

It's also possible to become a physiotherapist if you already have a bachelor's degree in a different subject and don't plan to go back to university. Courses that are likely to be suitable as entry qualifications for postgraduate physiotherapy courses include sports science, psychology or biological science. Postgraduate degrees in physical therapy usually take two years to complete, and, in addition to an undergraduate degree, it's a requirement to present at least two A-levels, including biology, or equivalent qualifications.

Related: Second bachelor's vs master's: which is better for you?

3. Register with the HCPC

After completing an apprenticeship or obtaining postgraduate qualifications, register as a physiotherapist with the HCPC to be able to work as one. The organisation sets specific expectations for physiotherapists, such as code of ethics compliance or the ability to maintain fitness to practise. It also defines a physiotherapist's scope of practice. Holding a valid HCPC registration is a way to demonstrate to employers and clients that you're qualified to help patients using professional techniques and methods.

To register, the HCPC requires you to provide detailed information about your training or range of services. Here's some other information you're likely to provide whilst preparing your HCPC application:

  • types of assessments, treatments and evaluation methods you use

  • evidence that supports your autonomous practice

  • how you've used research in clinical practice

  • information about the way in which you manage records

Related: Guide: a day in the life of a physiotherapist (Duties and responsibilities)

4. Undergo supervised clinical training

Working directly with patients is a key element of becoming a physiotherapist, regardless of the path you choose. During supervised clinical training, you get a chance to work under an experienced physical therapist, supporting their day-to-day work and learning their techniques. This step to becoming a physiotherapist may be especially beneficial for you if you're not entering the profession through an apprenticeship. To explore continuing development options available to you, consider becoming a member of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy.

Related: How to become a physiotherapy assistant (including skills)

5. Choose your speciality

As a physiotherapist, you have the option to work in public or private healthcare. Working in the public sector may expose you to interesting research opportunities, which you may use to start teaching others and, in the future, contribute to the nation's standard of physical therapy care. If working in the private sector is your goal, then you may have access to more specialities, including niche specialisations. Here are some physiotherapy specialities to consider:

  • Paediatric: Paediatric physiotherapists work with children, helping them recover from injuries or improving their quality of life if they have chronic illnesses. Physical therapists who choose this specialisation work with a range of children, from newborns to teenagers.

  • Sports: Sports physiotherapists usually specialise in sports injuries. They frequently find employment working for sports clubs or directly for players.

  • Women's health: Physiotherapists who specialise in women's health treat patients experiencing pelvic pain or lymphoedema. They may also work with pregnant patients, developing pre- and post-natal exercise plans for them.

  • Geriatrics: This type of physiotherapy allows you to work with older adults, treating age-related conditions, such as osteoporosis or arthritis. By providing these patients with ongoing support, you improve the quality of their lives and help them remain physically active for longer.

  • Neurology: Neurological physical therapists treat conditions of the nervous and spinal systems. For example, they may work with people with multiple sclerosis or neuropathy.

Related: 7 types of physiotherapists (With duties and salary info)

Key physiotherapist skills

Verbal communication, empathy and creativity are a few soft skills that physical therapists use at work. To build trust and provide patients with a high quality of care, they also develop a set of practical qualities, such as the ability to use different physiotherapy techniques. Here are some examples of practical abilities of physiotherapists:

Rapport building

Physiotherapists may work with patients after serious accidents and injuries. For some people, the first few physiotherapist appointments may be stressful. When a physical therapist knows how to build rapport, they may support the creation of a harmonious relationship. It's also easier for these specialists to encourage patients to try new exercises or talk freely about their goals or limitations.

Related: How to practise rapport building (With tips and examples)

Physiotherapy techniques

Manual therapy is a standard physiotherapy technique that involves the passive movement of joints and soft tissues. Effective physiotherapists use this method while considering a patient's limitations. In addition, they may combine it with other techniques, such as hydrotherapy or dry needling. When choosing the best methods for a patient, they may consult with physicians or orthopaedists about their ideas.

Rehabilitation equipment

Many techniques that therapists use require them to use the strength of their muscles. In some cases, they may guide the treatment using rehabilitation equipment, such as rollers or resistance tape. Some also use digital equipment, for example, red light therapy lamps or robotic gloves that encourage a patient's hand muscles to move.

Related: 5 biomedical engineer jobs (Plus salaries and duties)

Massage techniques

As part of their training, physiotherapists learn different massage techniques. Offering this type of service may be an effective way to earn more clients and build their brand as independent or freelance physiotherapists. Techniques that they frequently use include deep tissue or Swedish massage.

Related: How to become a sports massage therapist (With steps)

Physical stamina and strength

Working as a physical therapist requires a high level of fitness because physiotherapists constantly assist patients during exercises. The profession may require standing for extended periods or lifting heavy objects and patients. To maintain their fitness, it's advisable that physiotherapists regularly exercise. This can include running, cycling or strength training. They may also undergo physical therapy that aims to relax their bodies and help them build stamina.

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