Wanted: B.C. is seeking more physiotherapists

With a shortage of practitioners, postsecondary student seats have increased, and a UBC course helps foreign-trained physios qualify.
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Aenherma Saquing was eight years old when one of her beloved aunts had a severe stroke. Growing up in a poor family in Manila, Saquing was heartbroken to see her relative suffer. It was then that the Vancouver resident knew she’d work in health care one day.

“Going into physiotherapy was my dream,” Saquing says in a phone interview. “I was a very little kid when my auntie had her stroke. She was very sick and I really wanted to help her. I started thinking, ‘When I grow up, I should be someone who can help people. I want to be in the medical world.’ ”

Saquing finished her studies in the Philippines more than a decade ago and worked in private practice there before moving to B.C. a few years ago. She’s been working as a caregiver but is ready to get back into the field she loves.

With a chronic shortage of physiotherapists in the province, Saquing won’t have any problem finding a job. She first has to meet her licensing requirements, though, the hardest part of which is passing the national physiotherapy competency exam. Sitting the exam is an especially daunting process for someone who has trained abroad and taken time away from the profession. To help her pass those qualifying tests, she’s taken a course at UBC specifically designed for people like her.

Called the Internationally Educated Physiotherapists Exam Preparation (IEPEP) program, it’s one way the profession is trying to fill the gap, explains Alison Greig, associate head of UBC’s master of physical therapy program in the faculty of medicine.

“There’s been quite a bit of data for some time around the shortage of physical therapists in B.C., and when you look at the numbers of job vacancies and the projections around retirement [among existing physios], we’re only going to see more of that trend,” Greig says on the line from her office. “It’s a tough ask for foreign-trained physios who have maybe practised in another country and worked in a very specific area to revisit the breadth of the whole physical-therapy practice. We need to support internationally trained physiotherapists to practise in B.C.”

According to Rebecca Tunnacliffe, chief executive officer of the Physiotherapy Association of B.C. (PABC), there have been between 125 and 200 physiotherapy job vacancies for the past 15 years. That’s even after the provincial government doubled the number of postsecondary seats for students to 80 in 2004.

“The demand isn’t being met with the grads,” Tunnacliffe says in a phone interview. “We depend on foreign-trained physios to meet some of our need and we always have. We needed to find a way to help them get through the system a little faster, because the accreditation process is so strenuous for internationally educated physiotherapists [IEPs].”

Besides UBC and the PABC, other groups helped develop the program: the College of Physical Therapists of B.C., Vancouver Coastal Health, and Fraser Health. The course encompasses theoretical and practical components to help students be ready for the national exam’s written and clinical sections. There are workshops facilitated by practising physios; access to complex, virtual-patient cases; mentors available to help with specific questions; and a web-based discussion board.

When the course was first offered in 2008, it was funded by the provincial government. However, that funding ended in 2011. Now IEPs have to cover the costs themselves: $1,250 for the written program and $1,750 for the practical. The national exam itself is $2,000.

For Saquing, the cost of the program has been worth it. She has passed the written segment and is optimistic about her success with the practical component later this year.

“It’s been a while since I had my studies,” she says. “I really wanted to boost my confidence. This has helped me a lot. I really didn’t know how the Canadian competency exam would be; I had no clue. I’m gaining confidence. I’m very positive about the practical one.”

The program’s mandate has expanded to include Canadians who need to brush up on their skills before taking the national exams as well, such as women who’ve taken time off to have children, Grieg notes.

Although the IEPEP has played an important part in boosting the number of physios working in B.C., the association would like to see more seats available to students in the first place.

“We’ve identified a need of 150 [students graduating per year] to keep up with demand,” Tunnacliffe says. “We would much rather see B.C. physios being trained in the province rather than having to be trained elsewhere. Those who don’t get accepted here may be going to Australia or elsewhere. The only solution is to educate more.”

For people considering a career in health care, physiotherapy is a good one because of the diversity it offers.

“What gets me most excited for students who are on their way to becoming physios is the breadth of the profession and the number of opportunities in all areas of clinical practice,” Greig says. “You can also get into teaching or doing research or working in leadership and management positions. You can work clinically part-time and also teach; it’s so flexible.”

Then there are the job prospects.

“B.C. is a very attractive place to practise if you want to be a physio,” Greig says. “You’re going into training knowing you’ve got a job. B.C. grads have the market.”

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