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According to new research by the University of East Anglia, the University of Bristol and the University of Oxford, the amount of physiotherapy available following hip and knee replacements comes down to a ‘postcode lottery’.

It is first study of its kind to explore and map the provision of physiotherapy after a knee or hip replacement throughout the UK.

The universities studied data from the UK’s National Joint Registry. They collected data on over 37,000 patients in their first year after surgery and explored the amount of physiotherapy received and compared it to factors such as the patient’s level of disability, geographical location, age, social deprivation, gender and ethnicity.

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After studying the data, the findings revealed that patients are more likely to receive physiotherapy after hip or knee replacement in London and the north of England. Patients in the South West are the least likely to receive physiotherapy, the universities added.

The research also found a range of other factors impacted whether patients received physiotherapy – including the age of the patient, their gender and ethnicity.

Hip and knee replacements are two of the most common surgical procedures performed worldwide. More than 200,000 were carried out in England and Wales in 2017.

Post-operation physiotherapy is recommended for a minimum of six weeks. This can include hydrotherapy, resistance or aerobic exercise, and may be individual or group based. But, according to the universities, there is substantial variability in the delivery and content of physiotherapy across NHS trusts.

Lead Researcher Dr Toby Smith, from UEA’s School of Health Sciences, said: “Generally we found that physiotherapy provision was greater following a knee replacement compared to a hip. In the first year after the operation, 79 per cent of people who had a knee replacement received at least one physiotherapy session compared to only 53 per cent of those who had a hip replacement.

“But we found that there is substantial variation in the provision of physiotherapy nationally. And this variation is not explained by the severity of a patient’s physical impairment after their operation.”

Dr Smith added that the results showed substantial rehabilitation inequality relating to age, with younger people receiving more physiotherapy.

“Women were also more likely to receive physiotherapy, as well as non-white people,” continued Dr Smith. “So younger, female patients in urban areas are accessing more physiotherapy after their operations.

“What we don’t know yet is exactly what the causes of this disparity are. Individual patient willingness to seek and take part in physiotherapy may be part of the problem.

“But we hope that organisations who aim for parity in service provision across the UK, such as NHS England, Nice and the Quality Care Commission, will act to correct the patient inequality we have shown.”

The research suggests that provision of physiotherapy is not based on clinical need or pain levels.

Dr Emma Clark, Reader in Rheumatology in the Musculoskeletal Research Unit at the University of Bristol, explained: “This analysis of over 35,000 people after joint replacements showed that access to physiotherapy varies across England, and our results suggest this is not always due to pain or clinical requirement for exercise interventions.

“Instead the amount of physiotherapy patients can access seems to vary according to where people live, with patients living in the South West less likely to receive physio compared to the rest of England. This inequality is a very concerning finding.”

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