Gaining volunteer experience related to physiotherapy can be a great opportunity to see what physiotherapists do, where they work, and if it’s a career path you think you would like to pursue. Physiotherapists can work in many different settings and work with different patient populations. Volunteering with different physiotherapists in various settings can also help you decide what specialties you may want to pursue in the future. Maybe you want to work with infants and children? Then paediatrics might be up your alley. Maybe you want to help athletes get back to their sport after an injury? There’s a physio for that too! There are so many specialties to work in and shadowing physios in different settings can help you understand the breadth of scope physios have.
Not only is volunteer experience great in helping you understand more about the profession, but some schools require volunteer or work experience hours as a prerequisite. It can be difficult to get paid work related to physiotherapy without any prior experience in the field. So, how do you get your foot in the door? Volunteer!
The focus of this blog will be on how to get volunteer experience related to physiotherapy.
1. Use your connections
Have a friend or family member who’s a physiotherapist? Ask them if you can shadow them at work to learn more about the profession or volunteer at the facility they work at. Have you ever been to physiotherapy? Ask your physiotherapist if you can shadow them or volunteer at the clinic. Do you have family members who see a physiotherapist? See if they are willing to ask their physiotherapist if you can shadow them.
As a physiotherapist I’ve had countless patient’s children, nephews and nieces shadow me at work at the request of my patients. I’m sure other physiotherapists have had similar requests. Arranging a shadowing or volunteer opportunity with a physiotherapist you already have a connection with is likely your best bet to getting your foot in the door and gaining some experience. Unfortunately, I didn’t know any physiotherapists when I was looking for volunteer opportunities, so I had to roll up my sleeves and do it the hard way (read below).
2. Hospital or rehabilitation facilities
This is another fairly easy route to gaining a volunteer position. Most hospitals and rehabilitation facilities are very volunteer friendly and have established systems and people in place to help onboard volunteers. Volunteers play an important role in hospitals and rehabilitation facilities in helping improve the patient’s experience, assisting therapists in patient care, and offloading tasks from therapists to allow them to spend more quality time with patients.
Volunteering in a hospital and rehabilitation facility can be an extremely rewarding and unforgettable experience. I was fortunate enough to have a lengthy volunteer position at St. John’s Rehab in Toronto prior to applying to physiotherapy school. During my time volunteering at St. John’s Rehab I was able to work on many floors and see a wide range of physiotherapy specialties and patient populations. I was able to work with patients with amputations, burns, cardiac surgeries, orthopaedic surgeries, neurological conditions, and more. The facility did an amazing job in utilizing me as a volunteer and making it a great experience. I’m not sure if all facilities provide such an exceptional volunteer experience but the therapists at St. John’s Rehab did a great job at including me in the assessment and treatment sessions as an “extra set of hands” and explaining to me what and why they were doing different components of their assessments and treatment. In addition to helping out with the therapy sessions I would also clean equipment and bring patients to the therapy room to allow therapists more time to spend with patients or complete their documentation for the day.
Applying for volunteer positions at a hospital or rehabilitation facility is actually quite simple. Most facilities have dedicated web pages and applications on their website. After you complete the application a representative from the facility will contact you to set up an interview. Most facilities have a volunteer coordinator on site. If you are planning to volunteer at a hospital or rehabilitation facility please make time for it and treat this responsibility with the respect and the dedication it deserves. There were many times other volunteers no-showed or stopped coming all together without notice. Not only is this unprofessional but volunteers are important in helping therapists and staff become more efficient in providing care. If you aren’t willing to take on the responsibility, please allow someone else who is to take the volunteer position.
3. University professional organizations or clubs
Most Canadian universities have student run organizations or clubs that receive volunteer opportunities. Clinics or organizations seeking volunteers will often contact the university organizations or clubs to help spread the word about their volunteer opportunities. As a York University alumni, I still frequently get emails and see postings from the Kinesiology and Health Science Student Organization (KAHSSO) at York University about volunteer and intern opportunities available to students. If your university has an organization or club related to kinesiology, athletic therapy, physical activity, health promotion or any related field, look on their website, online groups, or contact them to see if there are any volunteer opportunities available.
4. Search online
One of the easiest ways to find volunteer opportunities is to search online. Some physiotherapy clinics are actively seeking volunteers to help with day-to-day clinic operations or patient care. In fact, this is exactly how I got my first volunteer opportunity in a private rehab clinic. After graduating with a degree in Kinesiology, I wanted to put my degree to good use. I applied to countless kinesiologist and physiotherapy assistant job postings and I got rejected from every single one. The reason? I lacked experience. How was I to get experience if nowhere would hire me without any job experience? Rather than continuing to apply to jobs and go on interviews just to hear the same thing, I decided to start trying to find volunteer opportunities to gain the experience I was lacking. The first posting I found was an “intern kinesiologist” position that was posted on Kijiji. The posting made it clear that this was an unpaid internship, but I needed the experience, so I applied. Needless to say it was much easier getting a gig when the gig pays you zero dollars.
You can find volunteer opportunities posting on job boards, volunteer sites like volunteer.ca or volunteermatch.org, or on clinic websites. Often googling “physiotherapy volunteer” + the name of your city or town will help you find clinics nearby that are actively looking for volunteers.
5. Send an email
Emailing a clinic out of the blue can be intimidating, but really what do you have to lose?
Not all clinics are set up to work with volunteers or assistants and for some clinicians having a volunteer can actually be more of a burden than help. If that’s the case, the clinic will likely politely respond to let you know that they do not accept volunteers at the clinic or you just won’t hear back from them. I’ve worked at clinics that accept volunteers and some that don’t. There’s no way to tell for sure whether a clinic takes on volunteers unless you ask. The clinics that have physiotherapy assistants will also be the clinics that will be more likely to accept volunteers.
There are many ways you can gain volunteer experience related to physiotherapy, but you have to be willing to reach out to people and facilities that can help you obtain volunteer positions. This list provides a starting point for ways prospective physiotherapy school applicants can get volunteer opportunities. So what are you waiting for? Start reaching out today and get one step closer to becoming a physiotherapist.