The allied health professions are raising their profile to build a diverse workforce with much better prospects. Kate Hilpern reports

Nevertheless, the stereotypes remain strong and contribute to the current skills shortage in this area, where practitioners range from podiatrists to dietitians and from psychologists to speech and language therapists. Other reasons for the recruitment crisis include the fact that historically, these posts have been seen as an all-female and all-white domain.

To compound the problem, many young people are unfamiliar with the diverse opportunities, such as radiography. "People often think that most of the work in hospitals is carried out by doctors and nurses," says a spokesperson for the Society of Radiographers. "Professionals like radiographers get forgotten easily, even though they provide essential services.

"It's almost certainly the main reason there is such a shortage of people applying for careers in radiography. Quite simply, people don't know radiographers exist."

A new project, New Generations - The Changing Face Of The Allied Health Professions, aims to raise awareness about career options and can be integrated within the national curriculum for seven- to 19-year-olds. As part of the project, local teams are going into the community to raise the profile of these careers.

Meanwhile, a range of web-based, interactive information resources is being created for schools, young people and their careers advisers. "There is a strong emphasis on the scientific nature of the careers on offer," says Wiseman. "Often there is this idea that they are touchy-feely subjects which can, in particular, put off men."

Allied health professionals are keen to employ staff from more diverse backgrounds, not least because they can understand the complexities of the people they are working with. Iqbal Masters, assistant operations manager and a state-registered paramedic, explains: "I was one of the first minority ethnic paramedics in the Lancashire Ambulance Service and, as such, I've been able to widen my colleagues' cultural understanding, which ultimately helps them do a better job. I have been able to teach them, for example, that when someone in a Muslim household is clearly suffering, paramedics should nonetheless respect being asked to take their shoes off before seeing that person, because parts of the room may be used for prayer."

Promotion prospects are also improving. Previously, if you wanted to move into management, it meant giving up clinical work. Today, the Department of Health has been working with professional bodies to develop a structure in which senior practitioners can retain a high level of clinical practice. These consultant posts are well-respected and highly paid. In addition, there are more opportunities than ever to move into research. "For me, the roles complement each other," says Gay Canning, a lecturer in radiography at London's City University and a practitioner at the Royal Free and Whittington Hospitals.

By far the greatest concern for many is training. People who left school early or who haven't studied for a long time may feel daunted by the prospect of a three- to four-year, full-time degree. "That's why we've introduced pathways to cater for all kinds of backgrounds," says Wiseman. "For example, one route that's becoming increasingly popular is working your way up from assistant practitioner. Many of these people are a bit older and although they may not have traditional qualifications, that doesn't mean they can't reach consultant level."

Among the professions that require all practitioners to enter via a degree is podiatry, but there may be examination exemptions for people who already have a degree in nursing, biology, zoology, physiotherapy, physiology and sports science. What's more, distance-learning and part-time courses are available.

Attracting people back into the NHS who left some years ago has also become important. "This involves a lot of communication with the public," admits Wiseman. "Many practitioners left to have families and haven't returned because, until recently, there haven't been the opportunities for term-time contracts, job-sharing and other flexible ways of working. We need to show them that things have changed and that the workplace is more receptive to people with other commitments."

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