Why have 444 Irish physiotherapists left to work in New Zealand?

Q&A: Katie Nolan on what makes NZ so popular with Irish physios

Why do so many Irish physiotherapists choose to move to New Zealand? Over the past decade, the highest number of New Zealand work visas for Irish citizens went to physiotherapists, with 444 work visas granted since 2009.

One such Irish physiotherapist who has made New Zealand home is Katie Nolan, originally from Cratloe in Co Clare, who now lives and works in Queenstown. For our Working Abroad Q&A this week, we asked her what makes New Zealand such a popular destination for Irish physios.

When did you leave Ireland?

I left Ireland in November 2013. I had just graduated as a physiotherapist from UCD and was offered a job working in a large teaching hospital in Singapore. It was a great opportunity to get the basic in- and out-patient rotations under my belt as a new graduate, and the prospect of bopping around South East Asia in my free time was too tempting to turn down. In my hospital alone, there were more than 20 Irish and English physios, speech therapists and occupational therapists starting together at around the same time. The ready-made group of friends I knew I would have there made it much easier to make the leap.


I then moved to Queenstown, New Zealand, in June 2016. I was ready for a change in climate and pace, and the idea of a ski season was really appealing. I intended to just stay a few months, but two years on I’m still here. I moved on my own, but have a close network now.

Why do you think there are so many Irish physiotherapists in New Zealand?

Here in New Zealand, it is part of the healthcare culture that people often consult their physiotherapist instead of their GP when they have complaints of a musculoskeletal nature. This is partly due to the fact that the government here subsidise physiotherapy treatment quite heavily via the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC). This is a national insurance scheme whereby every individual and their employer pays an ACC levy out of each pay cheque. The amount paid is stratified based on the level of risk of any given occupation - for example, a building company and its staff will pay higher rates than a retail company due to the higher risk of workplace injury. This levy helps to cover the costs associated with sustaining an injury at any time and for any reason while in New Zealand.

Tourists, residents, citizens and work-permit holders can all access the same healthcare benefits, including subsidised physiotherapy treatment. In effect, the government help to incentivise physiotherapy consultations over blocking up A&E or by patient making necessary GP trips. It costs patients the equivalent of €17 for a 30-minute physiotherapy consultation in Queenstown Physiotherapy, where I work.

Because of the fact that physiotherapists’ skills are so heavily relied on within the healthcare industry here, the standard of training is very high. Irish physiotherapists tend to fare quite well here because there are plenty of opportunities for newly graduated and experienced physios to hone our skills in supportive environments with experienced colleagues.

Physios’ patient caseloads are high, in line with demand, and there are plenty of continuous professional development opportunities here. Public perception of competency amongst the profession is also high, which helps new-graduates to develop confidence as they learn the ropes in their chosen trade.

The Irish and Kiwis are also very similar in many ways; the Kiwis are exceptionally friendly and hospitable as a nation. The laid-back lifestyle and focus on quality of life here makes it a really enjoyable place to work as a physio. I learn as much from my patients on a day-to-day basis as they do from me!

Tell us about your own career there.

I work in Queenstown, a resort town in the lower South Island. It’s an international tourist destination for all kinds of adventure activity enthusiasts, with snow sports and ice hockey in winter to mountain biking, canyoning and rock climbing in summer. As a physiotherapist I see lots of sports injuries: ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) ruptures, shoulder dislocations, neck and back injuries as well as contusions, sprains and strains. I have the opportunity to meet and treat high-profile skiers, snowboarders and mountain bikers during the season. Having a strong interest in sports and musculoskeletal injury management, I couldn’t be in a better spot.

I have also had the chance to work independently in nearby Arrowtown, which provided a different challenge: working without the on-site support of reception and management staff required a different set of problem-solving skills.

What does your day-to-day work involve?

I work in Queenstown Physiotherapy, a private practice in the town centre. My working week runs from Tuesday to Saturday, with two early, two late and one mid-shift. I have approximately 12 30-minute appointments; both new and repeat patients. Note-writing is squeezed into my two half-hour breaks. I usually get out for a ski, bike or hike or yoga session before or after work, depending on the time of year.

Are there any particular challenges you face in your work?

Sometimes it’s a challenge to convince people here to take time off their chosen sport or hobby in order to expedite their rehabilitation process. I see a lot of adrenaline junkies who want a quick fix so they can get back out there and return to the offending activity, particularly tourists here on short skiing, boarding or mountain biking holidays.

Do the Irish fit in well there?

Yes, for sure. I recently organised a cross-country ski trip to a little cabin in the mountains for 20 of my friends; in total there were 13 Irish, seven of whom were physios!

It’s a very multi-cultural environment here in Queenstown, thanks to the transient nature of being a resort town. This makes it very easy to meet new people, so friendship circles are constantly growing, and it is a home from home for many Irish people. There is a new GAA club in its early stages of formation at present. The night life is great which suits us well, I think.

What is life like in New Zealand, outside of work?

New Zealand is not massively dissimilar to Ireland; its people, landscape and industries are almost familiar. The scenery in the South Island is some of the most spectacular in the world; it’s like Ireland on a larger scale. There are four definite seasons here, which is refreshing after the year-round humidity of Singapore.

There’s always a mission to venture out on: bike-packing, multi-day hikes, or a camping adventure. There’s no time to get bored here. The winters are cold, dry and fresh, while the summers are warm, dry and sunny. I really love exploring the great outdoors here. There are loads of campsites and huts run by the Department of Conservation which cost around $10 per person per night, and they are really fun to explore.

What are the costs like, accommodation, transport, social life and so on?

New Zealand in general is expensive; import taxes are high, which has an impact on groceries and clothing.

Queenstown is quite isolated, so it is more expensive to live in than many places in New Zealand, especially in terms of accommodation (although probably less so than Dublin). Buses have a flat rate of $2 per trip within the town and surrounds. I am lucky enough to live centrally: it takes me 13 minutes to walk downhill to work, or 20 minutes to walk back uphill.

A pint of beer costs between $5 and $12 in most places. A decent main meal costs around $20 - $35 in restaurants in the town centre.

There are loads of free hikes and bike rides in the area. Ski and mountain bike season passes seem expensive at $650 - $700 apiece, but most people who get these tend to get good value for money based on the amount of time they spend skiing or biking.

Have you any plans for the future?

Well, if I could work in the Antarctic and South America in the next three years I’ll have covered all seven continents, so I have that as a vague ambition somewhere in the back of my mind. In the next few years I would like to move home. Employment prospects, and healthcare and housing are the main considerations before making the move home.

What do you think of your employment prospects in Ireland now?

When I graduated five years ago it was really difficult to get a job as a physiotherapist because I had no experience. I’d like to think that my prospects are much better now, as I now have significant time under my belt working as a physio. Like with most things, if you want it to work for you, then you’ll make it happen one way or another. It might not be easy but I’m sure it is worth it.

Do you think working abroad has offered you greater opportunities?

Yes, for sure. I am much more confident in my own abilities having lived and worked overseas. Being far from the well-established networks and support systems in place at home has made me a lot more independent and resourceful than I would likely have been had I stayed at home. That’s certainly not the case for everyone, but for me, living so far from home has made me a more well-rounded and open-minded person overall.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career abroad?

Go for it. The worst that can happen is that you decide it’s not for you. I reckon it’s probably more fun to try the experience first-hand than listen to people like me drone on about “life overseas” in years to come. The Irish overseas are really open and helpful; if you’re struggling to find a place to start, try reaching out to someone who has gone down a similar path to you. We’ve all been there and are more than happy to give a few tips to those coming along after us.

Is there anything you miss about living and working in Ireland?

My family and friends are the main things I miss. You just can’t replicate the craic elsewhere.

I am lucky enough to have extended family here, which helped a lot in settling in. They are a two-hour flight or 10-hour drive away, but having family in the same country really made me feel less alone when I took the leap here two years ago.

If you work in an interesting career overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do.