Bridging Alberta's physical therapy skills gap

(Edmonton) A new University of Alberta program will help address a growing need for trained physical therapists by helping internationally educated students practise in Canada.

The Department of Physical Therapy and Physiotherapy Alberta - College + Association are partnering to offer a new Alberta-wide bridging program that gives internationally educated physical therapists the educational and clinical experiences they need to practise in Canada. The two-year pilot program is unique in Canada and will help address a skills shortage in Alberta that is expected to reach 1,100 physical therapists by 2017.

“It’s a wonderful example of collaboration between the Department of Physical Therapy and Physiotherapy Alberta to address a growing health-care need,” said Bob Haennel, acting dean of the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. “It shows leadership and vision, and I see it as the first step toward creating a national program that can have a positive impact on the health of Canadians.”

“Internationally educated physiotherapists are essential in order to maintain an adequate supply of physiotherapists in Alberta,” said Dianne Millette, registrar with Physiotherapy Alberta - College + Association, which oversees the province’s estimated 2,400 physical therapists. “The bridging program not only helps these physiotherapists meet the requirements needed to practise in Alberta, but it will also help them successfully integrate into the Canadian workplace and fill gaps in knowledge and experience.”

Funded by a grant from Health Canada, the pilot is the only one of its kind in Western Canada and will see an initial 17 students with physiotherapy training from countries such as Chile, Nigeria, the Philippines and Brazil receive training in Edmonton and Calgary. The 13-month course features a blend of online, lab, real-time video and hands-on learning, including mentorship by a practising physical therapist and a six-week clinical internship.

Ryan Reyes has worked as an exercise therapist and personal trainer since arriving in Canada in 2007, despite training as a physical therapist in his native Philippines. He was surprised to learn there were so few options to build upon his skills to meet Canadian licensing standards and cannot even imagine having to prepare on his own.

“I am really excited about this program,” Reyes said. “I believe it will be able to help reach out to a lot of physiotherapists here in Calgary and Edmonton, and help prepare international students like me to work in our field and play a bigger role in the economy.”

Bernadette Martin, associate chair of physical therapy, says the program is designed to be flexible so students can continue to work during the day—many are employed as physical therapy assistants—and build their skills to enter the workforce in their chosen field.

Martin said the pilot will evaluate what specific skills need to be bridged and, if successful, could be offered nationally, given the program takes advantage of real-time web and video technology the department already uses to teach master’s students in both Edmonton and Calgary.

“This is our incubator model to evaluate the components of a successful bridging model,” Martin said, noting the pilot was created after some collaboration with the University of Toronto, which currently offers the only other physical therapy bridging program. “Ultimately, our vision is to offer something that’s truly pan-Canadian.”