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Majoring in Physical Therapy: What Students Need to Know, from School to a Job

Physical therapy is a field in demand, with strong growth in job opportunities expected over the coming decade. That makes it a popular major at universities, one that many Arab undergraduate students are choosing as the new academic year begins.

Many students entering or considering this field may be wondering just what physical therapy education entails, what specialties they will be able to study within this major, and what awaits them in the labour market after graduation.

The major’s popularity can be seen in the growing number of physical therapy programmes at Arab universities. Egypt, for example, has six faculties of physical therapy in public universities, and 17 in private universities. Saudi Arabia also has a number of faculties of physical therapy at public and private universities.

While physical therapy education programmes differ a bit from country to country, this article will help students considering a career in physical therapy explore the inner workings of this major.

Physiotherapy Departments in Egypt

In Egypt, physical therapy is a five-year bachelor’s degree programme.

Majors and departments generally are divided into eight areas: basic physical therapy sciences; biomechanics; musculoskeletal disorders and surgery (orthopedics); neuromuscular disorders and surgery; child growth and development (pediatrics); cardiovascular and respiratory disorders of the elderly (internal medicine); post-surgical physiotherapy; and women’s health.

Enas Fawzy Youssef, head of the department of physical therapy for musculoskeletal disorders at Cairo University, thinks that the most important aspect of physiotherapy is its connection to the clinical cases a physician deals with.

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Physiotherapy intervenes from a rehabilitative perspective, offering treatment through means such as standard therapeutic exercises as well as specialized exercises for the nerves and the circulatory system, she told Al-Fanar Media.

Physical therapy students may also learn and practice skills in hydrotherapy, using sound waves produced by ultrasound machines, and laser therapy.

The goal of physical therapy is to help the body regain normal function as much as possible, according to each patient’s injury.

Students’ Eligibility to Study Physiotherapy

With the increased popularity of physiotherapy, Youssef, who is also a former dean of the Faculty of Physical Therapy at October 6 University, in Giza, said that studying in such faculties requires students to be distinguished academically. English is the language of instruction, and students need to study basic subjects taught at medical schools, like anatomy, physiology, pathology, and pharmacology.

Physiotherapy students also study treatment methods through subjects like hydrotherapy, electrotherapy, manual therapy, and walking movements, in addition to practical training at college laboratories, and then in hospitals.

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Over the five years of study, each academic year lasts 10 months, so students have only two months of vacation in the summer. After graduation, they are required to attend a full training or internship year in a government hospital, followed by a two-year appointment at a Ministry of Health hospital. After that, the graduate will be licensed to work as a physiotherapist.

Jobs for Physiotherapy Graduates

Youssef said there was an increased demand for physiotherapy graduates in the labour market. She attributes that in part to some patients preferring physical therapy over drug therapy, to avoid the side effects of some medications.

She added that graduates of Egypt’s physiotherapy programmes—especially those with advanced degrees—generally are eligible to apply to work or study in the United States and Australia, after completing the relevant assessment and licensing processes in those countries.

After graduation, some students may choose to do their postgraduate studies, to get additional diplomas, master’s degrees, doctorates, and professional doctorates. Postgraduate studies allow graduates to establish a specialised pediatric centre or specialised centres to treat sports injuries, Youssef said.

Physical Therapy in Saudi Arabia

Khaled Olama, a professor of physiotherapy at Cairo University who has experience in developing physical therapy programmes in Saudi Arabia, said physiotherapy programmes in the kingdom usually include five main sections: basic science, physiotherapy for neuromuscular disorders, physical therapy for musculoskeletal disorders, pediatric development, and the circulatory system.

Teaching physical therapy there takes place at a college of applied medicine. These colleges are parts of universities, but at the same time are considered independent colleges in terms of the certificates that students get.

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“I was honored to participate in setting up the first academic programmes in physical therapy in the kingdom about 35 years ago at King Saud University,” he told Al-Fanar Media.

Unlike Egypt, Saudi Arabia has health institutes that graduate physiotherapist assistants. “This degree is approximately equal to high school, and students study there for three years,” he said. Graduates can then work under the supervision of a licensed physiotherapist.

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Graduates who want to become physiotherapists themselves can go on to complete their studies at a university.

Olama thinks Egyptian education officials should reconsider the regulations governing physical therapy education at Egypt’s public universities. He criticised making the regulations similar to those of medical schools.

“The adoption of eight departments at physical therapy colleges is a misconception,” he said. “It is not necessary to imitate the branches and departments of medical colleges.”

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