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Lack of protection for the title 'physio' leaves patients at risk

Photo: Health Times Magazine
Patients’ health and wellbeing is being put at risk by the federal government’s refusal to enact protection of the word ‘physio’, which can be – and frequently is – used by non-physiotherapist practitioners.

While penalties for falsely claiming to be a registered health practitioner have increased, there are no regulations in place to stop using the frequently used term, which is commonly associated with physiotherapy. 

Anyone prosecuted by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency under the National Law who falsely claims to be a registered health practitioner can be fined up to $60,000 and faces the prospect of prison time.

Under the National Law, anyone who calls themselves any of the ‘protected titles’ must be registered with the corresponding National Board.
It is an offence to use one of the protected titles or to knowingly or recklessly claim to be a registered practitioner when you’re not.

But with non-practitioners freely able to call themselves physios, the safety of the Australian public remains severely compromised.

Although the laws state that it’s an offence to use symbols or language that may lead a reasonable person to believe that an individual is a registered health practitioner, or is qualified to practise in a health profession, the protection of titles such as ‘physiotherapist’ and ‘physical therapist’ has left an easily accessible loophole available to fraudsters.

“It is ingrained in the Australian vernacular that ‘physio’ is synonymous with physiotherapy, and for patients to be unwittingly subjected to treatment or advice from someone who is not the trusted, safe practitioner they think they are seeing is not only wrong, it’s dangerous,” says Australian Physiotherapy Association National President Phil Calvert.

Mr Calvert is aware of several instances where non-physiotherapists, including both registered health care providers and non-registered, have used the term ‘physio’ in their treatment discussions with patients and families, or in their advertising.

“These situations should not be allowed to occur.

“They open up the real possibility that patients’ health and wellbeing is put at significant risk.

“Even one instance should be enough to cause a tightening of the regulations as it still poses a potential serious risk to the public.”

Mr Calvert says while the APA welcomes recent changes to National Law regarding penalties for those passing themselves off as registered practitioners, the continued non-protection of the term ‘physio’ is a serious loophole.

“In recent years there have been instances of other practitioners using the term ‘physio’ in a manner that could mislead the public into thinking the practitioner is a qualified, registered physiotherapist.

“This presents safety and quality risks to the public and reputational risk to the physiotherapy profession as a whole.

“It is time for the government to step up and protect the public in this regard.”

Under current National Law the titles ‘physiotherapist’ and ‘physical therapist’ are already protected.

The APA is seeking further protection of the term ‘physio’, in line with other professional bodies in New Zealand and Canada, and at the recommendation of the World Confederation For Physical Therapy, of which the APA is a member.

“The title ‘physio’ is ingrained in the Australian vernacular and completely synonymous with physiotherapy.

“These people are simply misleading the public and in fact trading on the trust and strong reputation of physiotherapy as a profession.

“This could lead to real issues of safety for patients who believe they are getting treatment from a physiotherapist whom they assume has all the correct qualifications, training and experience they expect from a registered health provider.

“It is no fluke that physios are the most recommended health practitioner by GPs, and to have other practitioners try to leverage this by using the term to imply their treatment is of the same value is dangerous.

“The law must change to accommodate protecting all variations of the words ’physiotherapist’ and ‘physiotherapy’.”

If the Australian public are receiving substandard care from people calling themselves physios, the professional reputation of physios will suffer.

“This may undermine public confidence in the profession, and lead to potentially dangerous outcomes.

“It also means the public are being misled in terms of how they are spending their money.

“Physiotherapists are highly qualified, evidence-based professionals and anyone calling themselves a physio must be registered with AHPRA.

Mr Calvert says the APA will continue to advocate strongly on this issue to the federal government and the Physiotherapy Board of Australia.

“It is really up to the government to step up and protect the public in this regard.”

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Nicole Madigan

Nicole Madigan is a widely published journalist with more than 15 years experience in the media and communications industries.

Specialising in health, business, property and finance, Nicole writes regularly for numerous high-profile newspapers, magazines and online publications.

Before moving into freelance writing almost a decade ago, Nicole was an on-air reporter with Channel Nine and a newspaper journalist with News Limited.

Nicole is also the Director of content and communications agency Stella Communications (www.stellacomms.com) and a children's author.