PhysioUpdate 22nd March 2022
'AHPs – what’s in a name', asks physiotherapist Chris Tuckett, who wants all AHPs to be more forthright in sharing their career stories.
I’ve been an allied health professional (AHP) since I graduated in physiotherapy in 2008, but I can't really remember when I first:
- became aware of the term AHP, or
- began identifying as an AHP.
I was certainly unaware of the term 'AHP' before I began my degree, and it wasn't mentioned much during my studies. However, more recently I have found myself questioning its utility. Is it a valuable or term or merely a distracting title that means very little to anyone outside the 14 AHP professions?
The AHP title is a mix of 'security and blandness'
Why am I asking these questions now? Having been a professional lead for the 10 AHP professions at my trust for two years I am acutely aware of the difficulties of adequately representing them all. And, having ‘AHP’ in my job title – I am director of AHPs – has led to me having a more conscious and intentional relationship with the title.
The AHP category contains a strange mix of security and blandness. Security, because it’s reassuring to be part of a large professional family, whose leverage, influence and heft is enhanced by having 14 very different professions in an alliance. Blandness, on the other hand, springs to mind because there is something sterile, unwieldy and cumbersome about the title. It feels very generic, as if someone is painting over the differences in the various professions with a very broad brushstroke. It’s the kind of title that might emerge during a ‘thought-showering’ session in a meeting room with Post-it notes and too much caffeine. (I’m sure the title’s historical and sociological origins were probably a lot more complex, of course!).
I also find myself asking who are we ‘allied’ to? Do we all consider ourselves to be ‘health professionals’ rather than, say, clinicians? As an individual each AHP knows and understands who they are and what they offer, but, I suggest, the public at large lacks this informed perspective. I would even posit that many AHPs don’t know much about their peers’ skillsets and knowledge base. The persistent use of AHP as a title means that our professional titles can disappear when promotion, leadership positions or other less overtly ‘clinical’ roles beckon. This is in stark contrast to our medical and nursing colleagues.
Getting the message to young people
This issue is, for me, where the real problem lies: the lack of clarity and visibility about the roles, contributions and working practices is stymying our ability to attract and recruit the new blood that all our professions need so desperately. If the unique professional titles evaporate when an AHP moves into a more visible role in the NHS, then, at a stroke, we lose the potential benefits of showcasing a specific AHP profession or career path.
For example, in my case, in signing off a work email or business case, for example, should I put ‘physiotherapist’ after my name? When meeting someone new or speaking at an event should I initially introduce myself as a physiotherapist first and a director of AHPs afterwards?
Such questions might also resonate in other AHP professions – perhaps even more so. I’m acutely aware that, of all the AHPs, we physiotherapists probably have the highest profile. But if you are, say, a podiatrist, occupational therapist or orthotist you might feel even more pressure to announce your professional background loudly and proudly at every opportunity. Unless we raise our own profiles, no one else will and there is a danger that our contribution could go unnoticed and that young people will not aspire to join our ranks as a result.
My musings so far might prompt two questions:
- does any of this really matter?
- is the AHP title really so poorly recognised in the world at large?
Questions and answers
The first question is easily answered once you start looking. There will no doubt be several senior healthcare colleagues who you know are AHPs and who are often in leadership or management positions. How often do they mention their profession in their email signature or introduce themselves by their profession when in meetings?
Do you even know what their profession is? AHPs are often fantastically adaptable individuals who make great leaders, ops managers or corporate directors. Yet their professional backgrounds are often opaque. This means that recent graduates from their profession won’t feel inspired by seeing a role model in a lofty position.
The second question is easily answered by asking around. My mum, despite having spent 30 years in care posts and in the NHS blood service – and whose son, after all, is an AHP director – couldn’t say what AHP stood for. When I asked a few more family members and friends what an AHP is, it quickly became clear that the term has not penetrated the public’s consciousness. In fact, during our virtual trust inductions I often put a call-out in the ‘chat’ for all new AHP joiners to contact me so that I can add them to my mailing lists. Each time I receive tentative emails from fledgling paramedics or prosthetists, for example, who wonder if the term applies to them or not.
Why being 'upfront' about your careers trajectory is vital
Some reasons I've heard for not being explicit about one’s own professional background have included:
‘It’s not relevant to the meeting or my current job role.’
‘I represent all AHPs and so do not want others to think I am biased towards my own profession.’
‘My “doctor” title was hard-earned and so I use it instead.’
In response to comments like these, I say that your professional background is always relevant and adds heaps of context to any work-related discussions you are having, however disconnected it might feel from your immediate role or task. Providing this information upfront potentially provides others with more insight – it’s up to them to deem it valuable or not.
Some might be wary of trumpeting their profession in case others suspect they could be biased in favour of their own one. As a physiotherapist representing nine other professions at work, I can relate to this view. However, I feel that simply disguising our potential for biased thinking does not prevent it from occurring – it may, indeed, worsen it. Much better to be upfront with your professional origin, and then allow others to judge if you are biased in your approach and thinking, or not. As leaders, opening ourselves up to the judgement of others is par for the course, and we should encourage it.
Finally, putting ‘Dr’ before our name should not preclude us from using our professional title as well, I suggest. Demonstrating that you have gained a doctorate will inspire others with similar origins.
Too often we fail to leave a trail or disguise it until explicitly asked about our professional origins. Let’s all be more forthright in sharing our career stories! [Chris Tuckett]
Proud to be an AHP and a physiotherapist
I feel the AHP title is valuable as it denotes being in a family of 14 professions that deliver amazing interventions across the entire health service. The Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically reshaped the delivery of health care and AHPs have risen to meet to the challenges in so many ways, just as they have done historically – in providing rehab to veterans after the world wars, for example. As the need for rehabilitation on a huge scale increases starkly once again, we should take this opportunity to ensure our individual professions grasp the opportunities that arise to raise our profile.
Though AHPs operate in a vast range of settings, they often remain hidden or their true origins are disguised. If we want to inspire junior colleagues, retain more AHP staff and promote career paths in schools and colleges, we must be more demonstrative and explicit about our individual professions.
I am proud to be an AHP, but even prouder to be a physiotherapist. I want to advocate for my profession whenever I can, and hope others do too. Those of us in senior posts have a responsibility to clear a pathway for others, to demonstrate where careers can lead, and to leave a metaphorical trail of breadcrumbs for others to follow if they wish.
Too often we fail to leave a trail or disguise it until explicitly asked about our professional origins.
Let’s all be more forthright in sharing our career stories!
Chris Tuckett is a physiotherapist who is an associate director of allied health professions at an NHS trust
Follow Chris on Twitter: @HealthPhysio
To see another PhysioUpdate Opinion column by Chris, visit: https://www.physioupdate.co.uk/news/allied-health-professionals-face-an-executive-glass-ceiling-at-work-physio-chris-tucketts-view/
Families had to attempt to deliver physiotherapy to their disabled children because they had no other option during the most acute phases of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a House of Lords report that was released yesterday (16 March).
The report, titled Living in a Covid World: A long-term approach to resilience and wellbeing, was written by the House of Lords Covid-19 committee. Members took verbal evidence from a number of families with disabled children last year and summarised what they were told in the report.
‘We heard about infants who had not learned to crawl because their housing had such little floor space. We heard about parents who had been left to take “on the burden of doing physio, occupational therapy, [and] speech therapy”, as well as home-schooling, for their disabled children, as their pre-Covid packages of 24-hour support disappeared overnight.’
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