Physical therapist vs physiotherapist (With skills and tips)

Updated 4 July 2023

If you have an interest in health, wellness and physical fitness, you might consider pursuing a career as a physical therapist or a physiotherapist. Although these terms are often used interchangeably, there are some important differences between the roles. To decide which career is the best choice for you, it is useful to first understand more about these distinctions. In this article, we discuss the roles of a physical therapist vs physiotherapist, the differences and similarities between both careers, the main duties and the skills required to excel in each field.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

Physical therapist vs physiotherapist definitions

When discussing the roles of physical therapist vs physiotherapist, many people use the terms interchangeably. Although the roles are similar and both share the common goal of the physical wellness of patients or clients, there are some fundamental differences. Physiotherapy usually requires a degree qualification, but physical therapists are able to practise by gaining alternative certification, although many do hold a degree qualification. Here is more information about these roles and their typical duties:

What does a physical therapist do?

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A physical therapist is a trained specialist who helps a patient or client regain mobility, improve fitness or manage pain. Their role is to evaluate a person's medical history, determine the best course of treatment and help them perform physical exercises. They generally focus on strengthening muscles and restoring mobility. The duties of a physical therapist typically include:

  • helping patients perform physical exercises and stretches

  • offering advice about warming up before exercise

  • helping athletes recover after sporting injuries

  • advising on injury prevention

  • performing manual manipulation

  • applying strapping and taping techniques to support joints and prevent injuries

Related: How to become an occupational therapist in Ireland

What does a physiotherapist do?

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A physiotherapist is a qualified health specialist who helps patients restore or maintain physical mobility and wellbeing. Their role is to evaluate the patient's condition, devise treatment strategies and use a series of techniques to help ease pain, aid recovery or improve physical capacity. They can prescribe medication, order X-rays or scans to help with diagnosis and design programmes of exercise or stretching for a patient to perform at home between appointments. A physiotherapist's approach to therapy usually includes a combination of exercise, physical manipulation and machine-based intervention. Their typical duties include:

  • diagnosing and treating injuries

  • helping patients recover after accident, illness or surgery

  • administering massage or physical manipulation techniques

  • using specialist modalities such as laser, electrotherapy, ultrasound or heat

  • monitoring patient progress over the course of treatment

  • liaising with other health team members as part of a wider care team

  • writing reports and patient notes

Related: What does a physiotherapist do? (Plus work environment)

What are the differences between a physical therapist and a physiotherapist?

The roles of physical therapist and physiotherapist differ in several ways, including:

  • The level of study completed: a chartered physiotherapist has completed a three- or four-year degree course. A physical therapist can also complete a degree course, but many practise as physical therapists or sports therapists after completing a part-time course that takes as little as 15 months.

  • Their area of focus: physical therapy focuses on the musculoskeletal system and doesn't usually consider other bodily processes. Physiotherapy includes the study of neurology and cardiorespiratory systems in addition to the musculoskeletal system.

  • The governing bodies for each profession: the Irish Association of Physical Therapists is the governing body for physical therapists while the Irish Society of Chartered Physiotherapists governs physiotherapists.

  • The working environment: a physical therapist can work with a sports team, in a private clinic or in the leisure industry, whereas a physiotherapist mainly works in a public or private clinical setting, such as a hospital, focusing on postoperative care and rehabilitation. Note that only chartered physiotherapists can work in the public sector.

  • Average salary levels: although this isn't always the case, the average salary for physiotherapists is generally higher than that of physical therapists. Salaries would depend on the experience, qualifications and work environment of the individual.

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What are the similarities between a physical therapist and a physiotherapist?

While there are important differences between the two professions, there's some crossover too:

  • A common focus on the wellbeing and recovery of patients and clients: whatever the treatment setting, both the physical therapist and physiotherapist use their skills to improve the quality of life of the patient. While their methods might differ, the end goal is the same.

  • Similar approaches to therapy: physical therapists and physiotherapists use hands-on manual therapy, including manipulation and mobilisation. Both also use complementary modalities such as electrotherapy, dry needling, acupuncture, ultrasound, tens and laser.

  • Ability to work in the private sector: while public sector work is largely restricted to chartered physiotherapists, both professions can forge successful careers in the private sector in areas such as clinical treatment, leisure, business and education.

  • Common registration with CORU, Ireland's multi-profession health regulator: this means that individuals in both professions adhere to high standards of professional conduct, education and competence. Both physiotherapists and physical therapists apply to the same CORU register, the Register of Physiotherapists.

What skills do you require?

The skills required to become a physical therapist or a physiotherapist are generally quite similar. These include:

Physical fitness

Both physical therapists and physiotherapists can benefit from having a good level of fitness themselves. Assisting patients to stand, sit, walk, run or maintain certain physical positions requires strength and stamina. Their daily duties often involve the manual manipulation of patients, so a good level of strength and cardiovascular fitness is crucial to be able to help patients while avoiding injury.

Related: How to become a personal trainer (With skills and duties)


Empathy is a fundamental requirement for both professions. Working with patients recovering from injury or surgical intervention can be a lengthy process and having empathy helps you maintain a positive relationship with them. It can enable you to support them through frustration, pain and other challenges they may face during treatment and recovery.

Related: Interpersonal skills: definitions and examples

Communication skills

Being able to communicate effectively is crucial to both roles. Conveying treatment instructions and aftercare advice requires the ability to express yourself clearly and accurately. Written communication is also important for writing reports, updating patient notes and constructing treatment plans for at-home exercise regimes.


The recovery process can take a lot of time and effort, making patience a vital skill when supporting patients through their treatment. Physical therapists and physiotherapists might help patients perform the same exercise or stretch multiple times. When you as the therapist have patience, this can also encourage the client to be patient too, which can in turn help with their recovery.


Often, a physiotherapist works as part of a wider healthcare team, so collaborating with other medical experts is a crucial part of the role. A physical therapist often works with a sports team, especially within the Gaelic Athletic Association, so working well with other people is a great skill to have. Teamwork can help you share the workload and responsibility, and it helps to ensure high-quality and safe treatment.

Time management

Both physiotherapists and physical therapists usually have a limited amount of time with each patient, so good time management is essential. Often, treatment can include a number of different exercises and machine interventions, so it is vital that each round of therapy is successfully completed within the allocated appointment time. Allow yourself the time it takes to make notes, liaise with other healthcare team members and undertake further professional training.

Related: What are time management skills? (Definition and key skills)

Commitment to learning

In both fields, treatment options and techniques are continually evolving and new technology frequently emerges. To excel in either role, it is useful to have a commitment to lifelong learning. Being open to training in new techniques and keeping abreast of innovations can ensure you are a leader in your field, which can benefit your career and the wellbeing of your patients.

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