Chartered Physiotherapist vs Physical Therapist - What's the difference? 

Although sometimes used interchangeably the titles 'Physiotherapist' and 'physical therapist' are, in Ireland, quite distinct from each other. Inspired by a recent question from one of our clients I will share some information which will help to explain the differences between a Chartered Physiotherapist and a physical therapist in an Irish context.

Definition - Physiotherapist

Physiotherapy is a health profession concerned with helping to restore physical well-being to people who are suffering from an injury, pain or disability. Using knowledge from our extensive scientific and clinical background Chartered Physiotherapists can assess, diagnose and treat conditions and illnesses that affect people of all ages and social groups.

Chartered Physiotherapists use manual therapy including manipulation, mobilisation and myofascial release as well as complementary modalities including electrotherapy and Medical Acupuncture & Dry Needling. In recent years pain management education and counselling techniques have also become integral in most treatment programmes. The Chartered Physiotherapist also utilises prescriptive exercise as a rehabilitative tool to help patients achieve their full potential. While traditionally, Physiotherapy was regarded as rehabilitative and mainly hospital-based, the profession has expanded greatly into other health care areas. We have invaluable expertise to offer in educational and preventative roles in the community, the workplace and in private practice.

Definition - Physical Therapist

The Dublin based Institute of Physical Therapy and Applied Science (Ltd) defines physical therapy as a holistic approach based on the manual treatment of soft tissue, i.e., muscles, tendons, ligaments and fascia. In this respect a physical therapist differs largely from a Chartered Physiotherapist in that they do not specifically treat the spine.

Training & Qualification

A Physiotherapist is a University trained allied healthcare professional with a minimum 4 years of training (National Framework of Qualifications level 8) including at least 1000 clinical hours according to WCPT accreditation criteria.

A physical therapist completes a three year part time degree consisting of twenty weekends a year over three years. A physical therapy student carries out clinical practice in the private setting only and will complete significantly less clinical hours prior to qualifying.

Professional recognition

Chartered Physiotherapists are recognised by the medical professions and the Department of Health. In 2005 the Health and Social Care Bill outlined a professional council and regulatory board for twelve specific healthcare professionals including Physiotherapists, dieticians and occupational therapists among others.

The title Physical Therapist did not meet the criteria to be a part of this health and social care professional board.

What it means to be ‘Chartered’

The title "Physiotherapist" alone is not evidence of a formal qualification in Physiotherapy given this is not a legally protected title in Ireland. As such, anyone can use the title Physiotherapist including physical therapists as well as those who have no formal training at all.

The only way to ensure your Physiotherapist is a University trained professional with a higher standard qualification is to look for the term ‘Chartered’. This prefix may only be used by members of the The Irish Society of Chartered Physiotherapists (ISCP). http://www.iscp.ie/about-us/who-we-are.

When you attend a Chartered Physiotherapist, you can be sure of:

  • A professional, scientific approach to the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of your complaint.
  • Seeing a therapist who has qualified with an accredited University degree (NFQ level 8) and who is committed to continuing education and research.
  • Your therapist is governed by a professional body with a code of practice and conduct.

The Irish Society of Chartered Physiotherapists have a list of all registered Chartered Physiotherapists in the country. By clicking on the link below you can search for your Physiotherapists name to ensure that he or she is a member of the ISCP - http://www.iscp.ie/about-us/is-your-physio-chartered-.html

Professional regulation

As mentioned it is possible for anyone to undertake limited training through part time courses and then refer to themselves as a Physiotherapist. In fact, some ‘physios’ have no qualifications at all which is a major public health concern. The Irish government is attempting to deal with this public health issue by implementing a new regulatory body (CORU). Unfortunately this is unlikely to fully protect the title Physiotherapist for exclusive use by University qualified Chartered Physiotherapists as is the case throughout the rest of the world.

Making an informed decision

The terms Physiotherapist and physical therapist can sometimes be used interchangeably, often by those who may be trying to mislead the public and take advantage of the lack of protection of title. As the patient, it is vitally important to be able to differentiate between these titles so you can be fully aware of the therapist’s qualifications when seeking treatment for your musculoskeletal problem

Original article by:
- BSc (Hons) MSc Physiotherapy MISCP

Updated January 2017 by Simon Coghlan

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