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Physiotherapist Susan Rankin treats a patient at her North Vancouver, B.C. practice. (Darryl Dyck For The Globe and Mail)
Physiotherapist Susan Rankin treats a patient at her North Vancouver, B.C. practice. (Darryl Dyck For The Globe and Mail)

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After the University of British Columbia graduated in January its most recent crop of physiotherapists into a voracious job market, there are still openings for more than 260 physiotherapy jobs across the province.

“And those are just the vacancies that are posted. There are many we know, anecdotally, that are just not posted any more because [employers] have given up,” said Rebecca Tunnacliffe, chief executive officer of the Physiotherapy Association of B.C., which conducted research on unfilled jobs in March.

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B.C. graduates only 80 new physiotherapists a year through UBC’s master’s degree program. The profession is imploring the provincial government to provide money to double the number of spaces – to meet the demand of students who want a career in physiotherapy, and to address the chronic shortage.

“Everywhere else in Canada has a fairly steady supply to meet the demand, but B.C. has always been just way out of whack with the rest of the country,” Ms. Tunnacliffe said. “We poach a little bit from Manitoba and we do draw some Ontarians here, because of the lifestyle, but it doesn’t help those provinces.”

Across Canada, demand for physiotherapists is expected to remain high, in part because of the growing numbers of older citizens, Service Canada said on its jobs website.

“The placement rate among university graduates is excellent, and there is almost no unemployment in the occupation,” the site says.

Demand in Ontario is about to balloon, as well, with the provincial government’s recent decision to pay for physiotherapy in the province’s family health care teams, which provide a whole range of medical services at one location to Ontarians.

That change “is going to potentially open up hundreds of jobs in Ontario,” said Robert Werstine, a London, Ont.-based physiotherapist practitioner and outgoing president of the Canadian Physiotherapy Association. “We are very pleased about that.”

The challenge is to fill those positions. “We don’t have anybody.” There is no pool of jobless physiotherapists in Canada that employers can dip into, Mr. Werstine said. Fourteen Canadian universities offer physiotherapy degrees, but competition for admission is intense.

Here is a look at the labour market appetite, the profession, and what it takes to get there:

The physiotherapist

 

Susan Rankin knew in Grade 10 that she wanted to be a physiotherapist, inspired by an indomitable five-year-old double amputee she met as a volunteer at a Toronto swimming program . The little girl taught Ms. Rankin the proper techniques for positioning the wheelchair, transferring her from the bed to the chair and helping her into the pool. “I was hooked.”

Having excelled more in languages than the sciences in high school, Ms. Rankin spent two years after graduation studying applied sciences. “They were two tough years for me. I barely left my room, I had to study so hard. But the minute I stepped into the physiotherapy program [at McGill University] I was home,” she said. “It was pure joy for me to learn all those things and apply them.”

She now operates her own clinic in North Vancouver and focuses on physiotherapy treatments related to facial nerve damage and balance and dizziness problems.

Ms. Rankin said in physiotherapy, you constantly learn on the job “and I have probably done everything you can possibly do in physiotherapy” – working in settings ranging from hospital trauma units, orthopedic wards, spinal cord injury research centres, to home care. She also teaches.

“I have seen people overcome terrible odds through hard work and determination,” including one stroke rehab patient who had been told by her neurologist that she would never walk again or use her right hand. The woman’s goal was to walk into his office, shake his hand and prove him wrong. “And she did just that…I take very little credit for her recovery, as I suspect that if I had worked with someone with less drive, the results would have been very different.”

The recruitment challenge

Mr. Werstine, who is involved in hiring decisions at the Fowler Kennedy Sport Medicine Clinic where he works, said the shortages are most pronounced in the public sector, which cannot offer the same financial incentives as private clinics. “There is no doubt that you can get paid more out in the private sector.” But in competing for the best, it takes more than money to attract physiotherapists, who also want mentorship and continuing education to be part of their career.

Beyond pay and hours, “continuing education is a huge incentive…people are looking for mentors to come and work for,” he said. “Our facility runs a sport physiotherapy mentorship, which mentors young PTs through learning sport competencies. The mentorship is key.”

 

The educator

There are far more applicants than there are spaces in UBC’s physiotherapy program, which chooses only 160 of the several hundred applicants to interview for the 80 coveted spots each year. They go through a process called multiple mini interviews to gauge candidates’ people and communication skills, judgment, and ability to think on their feet.

About half of the master’s program students come with undergraduate degrees in human kinetics or kinesiology. Each prospective student is giving two minutes to study a scenario and six minutes to discuss that scenario before they move to the next interview station.

“The scenario might be … that you have a patient with a sprained ankle and they are bound and determined they are going to go hiking up Kilimanjaro next week. What’s your advice going to be?” said Susan Murphy, head of clinical education at UBC’s two-year program. Other applicants come from a range of programs. – biology, psychology, drama, anthropology, marketing, geography, computer sciences, and early childhood education – having picked up, and aced, the science prerequisites along the way. “We really want diversity in our students.”

“It’s just an awesome career … you are getting an athlete back to playing on a team, you are getting a child to walk for the first time, you are getting an elderly person functional and mobile in their own home … and the job market is absolutely huge in B.C.,” said Ms. Murphy.

 

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