The number of physiotherapists practicing in Ireland is well below the EU average, new research has found.
According to findings from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), the number of physiotherapists practicing here is 30% below the EU average, and the supply of services varies greatly nationwide.
Physiotherapists are healthcare professionals who help to restore wellness as a result of injury, disability or pain. Their aim is develop, maintain and restore maximum movement and functional ability throughout life.
Services may be provided in an acute (hospital) setting or in a non-acute setting, such as via community care or in a nursing home.
In order to understand where resources are most needed, policymakers need information about the number of physiotherapists working in Ireland and where they are located. However, due to the lack of a comprehensive central register, little is known about physiotherapy supply nationwide.
The researchers set out to quantify the total supply of these professionals, and look at the different settings they work in.
They looked at overall numbers, but also whole time equivalents (WTE). One WTE is equivalent to one full-time physiotherapist working a 37-hour week for 46 weeks per year. In other words, two part-time physiotherapists could be equivalent to one WTE.
Data was gathered from the HSE, the 2014 Health Service Personnel Census, the 2015 register of members of the Irish Society for Chartered Physiotherapists and 2014/15 population figures from the Central Statistics Office.
The researchers found that there were an estimated 3,172 physiotherapists practicing in Ireland in 2014/15. Per person, this is 30% below the EU average.
When converted into WTE, there were 2,617 physiotherapists practicing in Ireland during this period, 864 of whom were working in the acute sector, while the remainder worked in the non-acute sector.
The study noted that a bigger proportion of physiotherapists worked full-time in acute hospitals, ‘which suggests that the decision to work in the non-acute setting may reflect a preference for more flexible working hours'.
Within the acute hospital setting, the majority of physiotherapists worked in public hospitals. However in the non-acute setting, slightly more physiotherapists worked privately.
Some 74% of physiotherapists were female and within the acute hospital setting, this rose to 84%.
The researchers found that nationally, there was an average of 3.5 WTE physiotherapists per 10,000 people. However, this varied throughout the country.
For example, Meath, Kildare, Wicklow, Wexford and Waterford had less than three WTE physiotherapists per 10,000 people, while south Dublin had five WTE per 10,000 people.
Differences in public and private supply were also found. For example, the lowest level of public supply was found in Kildare, however it had one of the highest supplies of private physiotherapists.
The researchers assessed whether these differences were down to greater need in some areas, but after taking into account mortality, disability and medical card numbers, they established ‘that the differences did not reflect relative need'.
"These are the first comprehensive estimates of the supply of physiotherapists in Ireland. The findings should assist policy makers in planning where to prioritise resources.
"The results also demonstrate that there are inequalities in therapy services in Ireland. These inequalities may need to be rectified if the aim expressed in the recent Sláintecare report of treating more conditions in the community is to be realised," the researchers said.