When I entered physiotherapy training in the 1980s, there was a rule at my school that said you had to be more than 5 feet tall to gain entry. I wonder what the people who had made this rule would think about my school recently graduating our first tetraplegic student?
Times change, and people’s priorities change too. A quick scan through textbooks from the 20th century and you will see that physiotherapy was once dominated by young white women. Now we recruit a lot more men, mature students and people from diverse cultural backgrounds.
Part of the reasons for this shift has been the need for physiotherapists to be more representative of the populations they serve, and to achieve this we have had to think creatively about how we recruit people to the programme.
We used to interview applicants, but interviews tended to favour people who looked and behaved as we do. So it was hard to introduce new people into programmes and change the cultural mix.
Another strategy was to take away the high degree of subjectivity that came with interviews, and recruit people purely on the basis of their grades. But because physiotherapy has always been a popular graduate programme, we could afford to set our entry requirements high and select only the ‘cream of the crop.’
Inevitably, people with high grades tended to be those who had had good educational experiences and had been well supported in their learning. The people who didn’t make the grade were not necessarily less motivated or less able, but had often lived in poorer school areas, come from poorer families, or from more disruptive social situations.
So to change the student profile has taken a concerted effort to change the culture of our recruitment, and it hasn’t always been popular.
If we acknowledge that it is hard for people trained traditionally to think radically about the profession’s future, then one way we might find to bring new thinking into the profession would be to positively recruit people into the profession who come from diverse cultural backgrounds.
It has been argued, for instance, that rather than continue to recruit school leavers with the best educational attainment, we might look for the qualities that make the best physiotherapy practitioners. This might be enthusiasm, ability to listen, compassion, flexibility, and dedication.
This is not to decry from good academic achievement, but it is now well recognised that these things alone are no longer adequate predictors of graduate success.
Some schools are making the change and seeing recruitment for diversity as a positive response to the changing economy of health care. Being open to people and cultures different to our own is often a challenge to people, but this is clearly an important innovation and a positive step in the pursuit of new physiotherapy practices in the 21st century.