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Charting the future for physiotherapy

With demand for physiotherapists possibly outpacing the supply of trained professionals over the next 15 years, a new modelling tool has been launched to help managers with physiotherapy workforce planning.

As we reported in an August 2015 blog post, there's widespread acceptance that increasing access to physiotherapy services could significantly relieve pressure on the NHS by freeing up doctors, cutting down on hospital admissions and speeding up recovery times. However, as always, there's an obvious catch. The strategy relies on balancing increased demand for physiotherapy services with the supply of trained physiotherapists in the right locations.

Now the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists (CSP) has come up with a solution. In September, it launched a new online tool designed to help plan the future physiotherapy workforce. The Workforce Data Model (WDM) enables physiotherapy managers to see availability of physiotherapists in locations across the UK and compare it with predicted demand for services up to 2030. Users can model a range of scenarios, including the effects of physiotherapists delivering more services in primary care.

There are more than 50,000 registered physiotherapists in the UK, already playing a vital role in rehabilitation after illness or injury, as well as prevention of injury in the first place. However, with calls for much greater use of physiotherapists, both in hospitals and GP surgeries, workforce planning is a key issue. For example, there's no point in making more physiotherapy jobs available in one area of the country if there aren't enough fully trained professionals to fill them who either live locally or are willing to relocate.

Taking into account the UK's growing and ageing population, the CSP workforce data model predicts that demand for physiotherapists could outpace supply by 500 each year. That means the number of additional physiotherapists needed will be 6,700 by 2025 and 9,100 by 2030.

"Investing in training physiotherapists is key to turning vision into reality," wrote CSP Chief Executive Karen Middleton in a recent blog for the NHS Confederation website. "The opportunity to add life to years, as well as years to life, is one we must seize."

More data needed

A September 2014 QualityWatch report by the Nuffield Trust and the Health Foundation highlighted the lack of reliable national data relating to the contribution to our health system of allied health professionals (AHPs) such as physiotherapists. "AHPs made up 6 per cent of the NHS workforce in 2013, with an estimated staff cost of over £2 billion," says the report. "Yet there is very little systematic information at a national level about the quality of care delivered by AHPs. In fact, there is a shortage of even basic information about activity, waiting times and appointments at a national level to inform comparative analyses."

It's not just in the area of patient care that physiotherapists are likely to become more in demand. In September 2015, NHS England Chief Executive Simon Stevens launched a new programme of health checks for the 1.3 million staff who work in the NHS, with musculoskeletal problems being one of the main areas of concentration.

Demographic data in the CSP workforce modelling tool shows that, by 2030, the UK population could increase by 6.5 million and the number of older people with care needs could rise by 61%. "Physiotherapists deliver exactly the kind of results the NHS is looking for, whether that's keeping people well and in work, or supporting their independence, and they do it in a cost effective way" said Karen Middleton. "But the demand for those services is growing so it's important that the workforce keeps pace."

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