Should You Study Medicine Or Physiotherapy?

Updated on: December 12, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

By studying either medicine or physiotherapy, you’ll open the door to an incredibly rewarding career in healthcare.

But, how can you tell whether medicine or physiotherapy would be the right choice for you?

A student should study physiotherapy if they would enjoy helping patients through exercise, stretches and education. A student should study medicine if they want to direct patient care by diagnosing and then developing treatment plans for patients.

I personally chose to study medicine.

However, before I made that decision, I actually went to shadow a physiotherapist because I was intrigued by what the profession could offer.

If you’re in a similar situation as I was, on the fence between medicine and physiotherapy, this article should hopefully lay out some of the main differences to help you make up your mind.

What’s The Difference Between A Doctor And A Physiotherapist?

To be able to make an informed decision as to which career path you’d rather pursue, you first have to truly understand the differences in what doctors and physiotherapists do.

I’ll admit I’ve never worked as a physiotherapist, but I have worked alongside plenty as a doctor, so do have a good understanding of how our roles differ.

What Does A Physiotherapist Do?

A physiotherapist’s main job is to treat patients through physical therapy- which generally means giving them exercises and stretches to do, either on their own or during guided sessions.

Physiotherapists are integral members of the multidisciplinary team and you’ll find them almost anywhere that healthcare is being provided. For example:

  • A physiotherapist could run a group exercise class for stroke patients to strengthen the side of their body that was affected by the stroke
  • They could help teach soldiers how to walk with prostheses after lower limb amputations in combat
  • Physiotherapists work with sports teams to ensure their players are in top physical shape
  • They assess and treat elderly patients in hospital after they’ve had a fall
  • They give advice to patients on how to best recover from common injuries such as sprained ankles, twisted knees or lower back pain

Physiotherapists can work either in hospitals or in the community. This can be through the NHS or privately.

A physiotherapist doing some resistance band work with a patient

In my experience, physiotherapists are often caring, scientifically-minded people who enjoy sports and learning about how the body works.

They can then use this knowledge to help patients recover from injuries as quickly as possible.

What Does A Doctor Do?

As a doctor, my role is less to do with the physical treatment of a patient and more to do with ensuring they’re being seen by the right person and are receiving the right treatment.

For example, if a patient comes to see me having fallen over on their ankle, one of the decisions I have to make is whether they need an x-ray or not to see if it’s broken.

I wouldn’t actually take the x-ray myself, but I’d be able to send the patient to the right place to have it done.

If I don’t think it’s broken and doesn’t need an x-ray, I’d likely then refer the patient to a physiotherapist who can actually provide the treatment (i.e. exercises and stretches) that will get the patient back to full function.

I know that the patient needs this treatment, but I, as a doctor, don’t actually provide it myself: I refer to the physiotherapist who’s the expert in this area.

Although this analogy doesn’t always hold true, such as surgeons who both decide and provide the care (i.e. perform the surgery), you can generally view a doctor’s role as the director of a patient’s care rather than always physically providing it.

Medicine Vs Physiotherapy Salary

Because of the fact that doctors are ultimately in charge of a patient’s care, and can head up teams of junior doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and occupational therapists, they are generally paid more than physiotherapists.

The average salary for a doctor in the UK is approximately £76,000 whereas the average salary for a physiotherapist is £37,000.

There are of course a tonne of different variables that go into how much a doctor or physiotherapist gets paid.

Medicine Vs Physiotherapy Pixel Infographic

Whether they’re working in the NHS or privately, how many hours they’re working, how many out-of-hours shifts they’re doing, their level of experience and seniority…

A physiotherapist with a well-established private practice might expect to earn anywhere from £40,000 to £60,000, while a newly qualified doctor will start on roughly £29,000 in the NHS.

So, it’s certainly not true that doctors always earn more than physiotherapists, but because they can reach positions of higher responsibility they are often compensated more than their physio colleagues.

Medicine Vs Physiotherapy Training

One of the biggest differences between becoming either a doctor or a physiotherapist is your training.

To become a doctor, you’re going to need to complete 4-6 years of medical school, passing your medical finals to graduate as a junior doctor.

To become a physiotherapist, you just have to do 3 years of university as an undergraduate, or a 2 year MSc as a postgraduate.

A physiotherapist examining a patient’s shoulder

The entry requirements for each degree are also pretty different.

You’ll be incredibly hard-pressed to get into medicine with anything other than at least 3As. There are of course exceptions to this but it’s not the norm.

For undergraduate physiotherapy, the average offer looks more like ABB-AAB.

Medical school is generally far more competitive than acceptance onto a physiotherapy course, so to secure a spot you’re going to need to be prepared to craft a great personal statement, sit a specialised entrance exam and do yourself justice at an interview.

Medicine Vs Physiotherapy Career Progression

Medicine and physiotherapy are both similar in that new graduates from either discipline are nowhere near the fully-qualified end product.

As a doctor, the quickest you can become a fully-qualified GP is after 5 years of postgraduate training.

For other specialties, such as plastic surgery, it will generally be at least 10 years from your medical school graduation date to taking up post as a consultant surgeon.

Although similar, you can climb the physiotherapist ladder slightly quicker than in medicine.

Unlike doctors, physiotherapists work on the NHS band system, so they start at band 5 and then can progress all the way up to band 9 if desired.

However, from band 7 and above the roles often become more managerial and less clinical.

This means if you want to progress all the way to the top as a physiotherapist, at some point you’re going to have to stop seeing patients and start managing other NHS staff.

Although doctors can also take on managerial roles, they’re far more likely to remain clinical to some extent throughout their entire careers.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, I think you have to choose the course that you think will lead to the most rewarding career for you as an individual.

Although doctors may get paid more than physiotherapists, there are certainly downsides to working in medicine.

It’s higher stress, often longer hours and the training pathways can be incredibly long.

I’ve got plenty of friends who love working in medicine and equally plenty who love working as a physiotherapist.

At the end of the day, they’re both great options so I don’t think you can go too far wrong!

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.