Lets assume, for a moment, that only our most modest predictions for the effects of new digital technologies, bodily enhancements, robotic technologies and advances in augmented reality come true, and that lots of our customary ways of thinking and being remain unchanged over the next half century.
If we only see a moderate increase in people’s use of the Internet as their primary source of health knowledge, and only a few people experience radical changes to their rehabilitation, home care and specialised healthcare, then we are still looking at a significantly different future for physiotherapy than we have today.
So what will even some of the most modest changes mean for the ways people come to learn about physiotherapy? Here are some thoughts:
- An end to anatomy lectures. Once upon a time, physiotherapy students sat in lecture rooms copying down pages of notes largely drawn from heavy anatomy books. Soon, these will be all but replaced by widely accessible, beautifully engineered, portable and interactive apps that do all the work of a lecturer, at about one-thousandth of the cost. (*Note, the same will surely apply to most, if not all of the science-based subjects that were once taught this way – physiology, pathology, biomechanics, etc.)
- Students will demand face-to-face contact, so practical classes and conversations between students and teachers will become the things that students prize most highly. Consequently, quality student engagement may become the thing most university’s compete over – but only where the costs of this luxurious form of education can be met. The rest may well have to put up with ‘chalk and talk’ and a two- or even three-tier system of educational apartheid may develop between elite universities in developed economies and everyone else.
- Universities and their faculty will have to grapple with the idea that they are no longer the repositors and arbiters of the truth, and increasingly the accreditors of qualifications. Students will increasingly bring learning from a wider range of sources, and the university’s role will become more about assessment than delivery. Teaching students to distinguish what is trustworthy and valuable, may become a central feature of new curricula.
- The humanities, matters of complexity, critical thinking skills, personal beliefs and values – those things that cannot easily be taught in a lecture and are best developed through small-group discussion – will continue to resist objectification and measurement, but will increasingly become reasons for students to choose University Programme A over Programme B.
- The lack of simple, single linear definitions and explanations for health and illness, and the growing diversity of practices like physiotherapy, will force universities to challenge regulatory authorities to loosen their rigid hold on professional definitions and scopes of practice. Trying to anticipate the practitioner of the future, universities will demand greater freedom to teach subjects that have traditionally been outside of the ‘approved’ curriculum: engineering, creative writing, animal studies, digital media, etc., may all become available to students who will, themselves, demand much greater freedom, and will resist the linear, one-size-fits-all curriculum that has been the traditional standard in the profession.
However we might view reports like this, that show new software replacing 360,000 hours of lawyers time with computers, or ideas like this about new digital devices that are inserted into the body, there can be little doubt that change is on the way.
If part of the university’s function is to anticipate the future needs of health professionals and prepare their students accordingly, we should expect some radical changes in the way students learn about physiotherapy in the future.