Home » Science & Healthcare » The skills you need to be an allied health professional

Professor Sara Demain

Head of School of Health Professions, University of Plymouth

Allied health professionals include occupational therapists, osteopaths, podiatrists and dietitians – people who can make a life-changing impact on the patients in their care.

Think for a minute about the job roles within the NHS, says Professor Sara Demain, Head of School of Health Professions at the University of Plymouth. A large number are regularly overlooked or, at least, under-appreciated – so the full list might surprise you.

“Everyone always says ‘doctors and nurses’,” she notes. “But what about paramedics – the people who get patients to the hospital? Or radiographers who are needed if those patients require an X-ray? Or physiotherapists?”

In fact, paramedics, radiographers and physiotherapists are just three examples of allied health professions (AHPs), the third largest workforce in the NHS. These professions make a massive and sometimes life-altering positive impact on patients in a wide range of settings, including hospitals, community care, social care and voluntary sectors.

A role with a high level of responsibility

AHP roles are demanding but hugely rewarding. Take those who help rehabilitate adults and children who have disabilities or special needs. “As a physiotherapist, I’ve cried with patients when they’ve taken their first step weeks after suffering a stroke,” says Professor Demain. “I’ve had cards from people who have said: ‘You’re the first person who has really listened to me in 20 years, and I now have hope.’ So, as an AHP, you absolutely change lives.”

There are 14 AHP occupations in all, including art therapists, dietitians, drama therapists, music therapists, occupational therapists, operating department practitioners, orthoptists, osteopaths, podiatrists, prosthetists and orthotists, and speech and language therapists. Take podiatrists: This essential profession provides expert footcare to patients of all ages. Podiatrists can prevent the need for amputations, prevent sports injuries, and some perform foot surgery.

While these roles are very different, they are all strongly patient-facing, play an important role within the multi-disciplinary team, and – crucially – enjoy clinical autonomy.

“Allied health professionals manage their own caseloads from day one,” says Professor Demain. “They make their own decisions about who they need to treat and how they need to do it. This high level of responsibility makes it an extremely attractive prospect for many people considering their career options.”

Excellent interpersonal skills required

Most AHPs will be educated to degree or postgraduate level (degree apprenticeships are available for some roles). Yet paper qualifications are only part of the story.

AHPs need excellent interpersonal skills, because they’ll be working with people who may be anxious, confused, or in pain. For example, an occupational therapist may work with a child with profound learning disabilities, while a dietician may offer nutritional recommendations for patients with kidney failure, or children who have had chemotherapy.

“AHPs must be able to build good relationships with patients and their families,” says Professor Demain. “They have to be problem-solvers who are empathetic and good at prioritising. They also need the emotional resilience to make difficult decisions, and to reflect and learn when occasionally – as in every healthcare scenario – they don’t achieve the outcome they desire.” In addition, allied health professionals should be good team-players who respect the expertise of other health professionals.

Opportunities for a flexible and varied career

In most of the allied health professions, chances of employment currently stand at 100%. “There’s a very clear promotion structure throughout the professions within the NHS, plus lots of opportunities for private practice,” says Professor Demain.

“Or, AHPs may want to move away from patient-facing roles to build careers in research or education.  Many of the professions offer chances for flexible working too.”

So how does someone choose which occupation to enter? “My advice would be to explore options by visiting the websites of professional bodies,” says Professor Demain. “And find opportunities for work experience to get an insight into the challenges you might encounter and the skills you’ll need.”

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