20-year-old physiotherapy student Devika Shah is taking part in the virtual placement developed by Connect Health
20-year-old physiotherapy student Devika Shah is taking part in the virtual placement developed by Connect Health

Innovative virtual placements launch, offering physio sessions using Facebook - in a bid to keep student training on track amid COVID-19

Over 1,000 physiotherapy students are estimated to be facing delays in progressing through university due to COVID-19 restrictions, with courses being paused for around 50% of undergraduates.

The issue has prompted Connect Health, the UK’s largest, independent provider of community musculoskeletal (MSK) and pain services, to step in and develop a pioneering new virtual clinical placement initiative. It offers training sessions with remote tools such as Microsoft Teams and uses Facebook Live for consultations with patients and students around the world.

Connect Health – which has its HQ at Quorum Business Park in North Tyneside - supports around 100 student placements each year, giving practical exposure to patients while allowing the trainees to work alongside a multi-disciplinary team of clinicians. Without this essential experience, students cannot complete their course, meaning a delay to graduation.

In response, Connect Health developed a Virtual Student Placement, in partnership with Brunel University, King’s College London and St George’s University. Some students began in May, with more added to the programme this month. It takes the total to more than 60 participants so far, with another 120 starting in the coming months.

Matthew Wyatt, a Consultant Physiotherapist at Connect Health, came up with the scheme. He explains: “The impact of COVID-19 is that traditional placements are impossible and this significantly impacts the pipeline of physiotherapists into the NHS.

“Health Education England has arranged for hospital trusts to accommodate some as Health Care Practitioners (HCPs), which allows training hours to be built up and some students can graduate early, but there are a proportion of aspiring physios who have been left in limbo. We’re pleased to have quickly adapted what we do, so we can offer those students support. Sadly, we don’t have the capacity to help all students in this situation, so we’re keen to highlight to others what’s possible.”

The initiative is unique in structure and size, offering three elements that can be accessed virtually from the student’s home or dorm: • Remote consultations by telephone or video offers diversity to traditional placements, with students shadowing occupational health physio services, physiotherapy, advanced practice clinics in sports and exercise medicine, occupational therapy, rheumatology consultants and psychology. There is access to online consultations to pain clinics, pain management programmes and group case discussion sessions. • Facebook Live is used to deliver virtual group rehabilitation, exercise and education sessions to patients and the public via the Connect Health Facebook page. • A virtual student academy in Workplace from Facebook offers the chance to interact with over 400 clinicians and access educational resources provided as part of Connect Health’s Clinical Academy. This includes daily CPD sessions delivered by senior clinicians, Connect’s Virtual Clinical Conference and online learning modules.

Dr Claire White, Education Lead for Physiotherapy, King’s College London, said: “This innovative remote clinical placement is a fantastic learning opportunity. Students are developing their understanding and clinical reasoning, alongside skills in digital healthcare that will be critical for the future delivery of healthcare in line with the NHS Long Term Plan. The remote placement model means that students who cannot undertake face-to-face placements during Covid-19 due to health issues, shielding or caring responsibilities, can continue their studies flexibly and progress with their degrees. This is vital in supporting their professional development and maintaining the flow of graduates into the workforce.”

Student and patient feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Eloise Saunders, aged 22 from Brighton, is in her third year at Brunel University studying for her BSc in Physiotherapy.

Eloise has a job lined up in Chichester and starts in July, but she knows others studying the same course in the UK may be less fortunate. She said: “I was below the 1,000 placement hours needed to graduate and I didn’t think it would be possible to find another placement because hospitals no longer seemed to be accepting students, due to Covid-19 risk.

“It was brilliant to be accepted onto the virtual programme, along with 16 others in my cohort. I was really keen to focus on MSK, which means the opportunity with Connect Health suited me perfectly.

“Because it’s remote, we get to learn from many more clinicians, and while you lose the face to face patient contact, it’s been interesting to learn how to nurture a rapport in a virtual environment.”

Devika Shah, aged 20, is in her second year studying BSc Physiotherapy at Kings College London. She has shadowed over 25 clinics to date, she conducts patient telephone consultations alongside a qualified physio, and uses Facebook Live to deliver exercise sessions with household objects such as soup. She said: “My grandma currently lives with me and although she’s not shielding, she is elderly and so a virtual placement was a good solution. In many ways it’s better than a traditional placement because I can drop into clinics taking place right across the UK. Plus, if I didn’t complete a placement it may have delayed my graduation.”

Matthew adds: “Telehealth is changing the future of placements. Healthcare isn’t going to be the same again and students and patients have adapted incredibly rapidly to this new virtual world.”

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