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TechnologyNov 9, 2020

Physio students benefit from new virtual practice placement model

A major player in the delivery of physiotherapy services across the country has found a successful way of helping students to gain the practical experiences they need during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Four staff members at Connect Health – said to be the largest independent provider of integrated community musculoskeletal (MSK) and physiotherapy services in the UK – wrote about the model for the first time earlier this month in an open access publication in BMJ Open Quality.

Photo Credit: Steven Lelham on Unsplash
Connect Health: on track in delivering a speedy and coordinated student experience

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Three of them – Rory Twogood, Elly Hares and Matthew Wyatt – give the Newcastle-upon-Tyne based Connect Health as their sole affiliations – while a fourth, Andrew Cuff, also holds a position at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Tackling the backlog

The authors report that Connect Health traditionally offers practice placements to about 100 undergraduate students annually, but had been forced to cancel 10 placements in April due to the Covid-19 pandemic and resultant lockdown.

This situation – replicated elsewhere in the UK as physios switched from holding face-to-face consultations with patients to conducting virtual ones – quickly led to a backlog in student placements, they note.

‘Without the requisite placement hours students are unable to progress into the next academic year or are unable to graduate. This then reduces the flow of new-graduate physiotherapists into the workforce at a time when there is a plan to grow the physiotherapy workforce to meet primary care demand.’


The model runs using widely available technology, requires no additional investment and has enabled these students to continue their studies and progress towards qualifying as physiotherapists

In response to the growing problem, Connect Health rapidly set up a company-wide system of ‘virtual placements’ and enrolled 182 students on this between May and August. This total, the paper states, was four times the number of students that had been enrolled in the company’s scheme in the year 2018-2019.

‘The model runs using widely available technology, requires no additional investment and has enabled these students to continue their studies and progress towards qualifying as physiotherapists,’ it notes.

The authors suggest this is the first report on the implementation of virtual placements in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

‘We believe this model, or a version of it, could be implemented in any setting running virtual clinics to facilitate the continuation of student placements during the Covid-19 pandemic and thus supporting the progress of students into the workforce.’

Helping students gain their 1,000 hours' experience

The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy requires students to complete 1,000 hours of practice-based learning during their degrees. But, echoed by the Health and Care Professions Council, the society called for the creation of ‘flexible contingency plans’ in the wake of the impact of Covid-19.

While the authors admit that the virtual model means students might miss out on developing ‘hands on’ objective assessment skills, they instead develop skills in setting up virtual clinics and ‘virtual rehab classes’.

Equipped for future demands

There are a number of benefits to this approach, in part because such approaches are ‘likely to form part of the future of healthcare delivery’, they note.

‘Students were able to shadow a broad range of clinics including physiotherapy, advanced practice, rheumatology, consultant physiotherapist led, specialist pain and occupational health.

‘Students reported that they enjoyed the opportunity to engage with so many different clinical settings and learn from a wide range of clinicians within one placement, which is not usually readily available.’

Rapid response

The authors conclude that the Connect Health quality improvement (QI) process was conducted rapidly, in response to an ever-changing environment, and should be ‘considered with respect to its limitations’.

‘We continue to run an iterative QI approach to develop a blended student placement model combining the best of both traditional and virtual models as we transition back to face-to-face working.

‘We are also looking to undertake a qualitative evaluation of the student and clinician experience of the virtual student placement model,’ they add.

To see the Rapid implementation and improvement of a virtual student placement model in response to the COVID-19 pandemic report, visit: https://bmjopenquality.bmj.com/content/9/4/e001107



Author: Ian A McMillan
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