Employment Outlook & Career Guidance for Physical Therapists

Physical therapists (PTs), help people improve movement and manage pain fromshutterstock_237770878 (1) functional problems like back and neck injuries, fractures, sprains, and strains, arthritis, neurological disorders, amputations, injuries related to work and sports, and other chronic conditions. PT’s provide care to people of all ages and are an important part of the rehabilitation, treatment, and prevention plans in patients with illnesses or injuries.

The work of PTs varies from patient to patient. For example, a stroke patient working to recover use of his or her arms needs different care from a patient who is recovering from a fracture. Some PTs specialize in only one type of care, such as orthopedics, but many PT’s help patients to improve mobility by developing fitness and wellness programs too.

Important Knowledge, Skills & Abilities

Movement, which many of us take for granted, is key to optimal living and quality of life, and extends beyond every person's ability to participate in daily activities. The complex therapeutic needs of society, such as those resulting from injury or disease, engage physical therapists to assess, plan, and participate in rehabilitative programs with clients to overcome barriers and correct disabling conditions.

Physical Therapists must have knowledge and skills in a number of areas, including: 

Knowledge:

  • MedicineKnowledge of the techniques used to diagnose and treat injuries and deformities.
  • Customer Service – Knowledge about the processes for providing personal services, which includes patient assessment and evaluation.
  • Psychology – Knowledge of human behavior and performance; differences in ability, personality, and interests; learning and motivation, assessment and treatment of physical disorders.
  • Anatomy – A thorough knowledge of anatomy; the bodily structure of humans (and other living things), especially as revealed by dissection and the separation of parts.
  • Therapy and Counseling - Knowledge of principles, methods, and procedures for diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation of physical and mental dysfunctions, and for counseling and guidance.
  • Biology - Knowledge of plant and animal organisms, their tissues, cells, functions, interdependencies, and interactions with each other and the environment.
  • Sociology and Anthropology - Knowledge of group behavior and dynamics, societal trends and influences, human migrations, ethnicity, cultures and their history and origins.
  • Administration and Management - Knowledge of business and management principles involved in strategic planning, resource allocation, human resources modeling, leadership technique, production methods, and coordination of people and resources.
  • Clerical - Knowledge of administrative and clerical procedures and systems such as word processing, managing files and records, designing forms, and other office procedures and terminology.
  • Physical Therapy – Knowledge about all aspects of the treatment of disease, injury or deformity by physical methods, such as massage, heat treatment, and exercise.

Physical therapy programs also often include courses in biomechanics, physiology, neuroscience, and pharmacology. Physical therapist students complete at least 30 weeks of clinical work, during which they acquire supervised experience in areas such as acute and orthopedic care.

Skills & Abilities

Compassion The ability and the desire to help people who are in pain, and having empathy for their circumstances.

Interpersonal skillsThe ability to work with wide ranges of with people; clearly explain treatment programs and motivate patients.

Detail oriented – PTs should have strong analytic and observational skills to diagnose and treat patients’ problems and provide safe, effective care.

Dexterity – Ability and the skill to use their hands to provide manual therapy, such as massage, and therapeutic exercises.

Physical staminaPTs spend a great deal of time on their feet moving and demonstrating proper therapy techniques while helping patients perform exercises.

ResourcefulnessAbility to customize treatment plans for patients.

Flexibility – The ability to be flexible and to adapt plans of care to meet the needs of each patient.

Job Outlook and Employment Projections for Physical Therapists

Physical therapists typically work in clinics, hospitals, in private offices, nursing homes, and often travel to the private homes of patients. They spend much of their time on their feet, actively working with patients. In 2015, the American Physical Therapy Association developed a model to estimate the number of physical therapists needed to meet the healthcare demands of people living gin the US. In short, their research projects a shortage of nearly $19,000 PT’s by 2025.

That’s why it’s no surprise that employment of PTs is projected to grow 34-percent from 2014 to 2024, which is much faster than average for all careers. Demand for physical therapy services will continue as populations’ age but continue to stay active.

The median annual wage for physical therapists was $84,020 in May 2015, with the highest 10-percent earning more than $119,790, and the lowest 10-percent earning less than $57,000. Although most therapists work full-time during normal business hours, it’s not uncommon to also work evenings or weekends, and holidays.

Learn more about how to become a physical therapist and  how to become an exercise therapist.

Ways to Increase Your Job Prospects

Individuals entering the PT profession must earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree and apply to and complete a clinical residency program after graduation. DPT programs normally last about three years, and require a bachelor’s degree for admission, as well as educational prerequisites, such as chemistry and biology. Most DPT programs require applicants to apply through the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS).

Residencies typically last about one year and provide additional training in a specialty area. Therapists who complete a residency program may choose to specialize further by completing a fellowship in an advanced clinical area.

Networking, joining professional organizations and associations, taking continuing education courses (which is normally required for PT’s to maintain their license) and staying up-to-date with new techniques and breakthroughs in the field of physical therapy are all things individuals can do to increase their job prospects, earn a higher wage, and be considered for promotion.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations 

All states require PTs to be licensed. Licensing requirements vary by state, but all include passing the National Physical Therapy Examination by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.

Some physical therapists may choose to become a board-certified specialist after gaining work experience. Board certification requires passing an exam and completing a set number of hours of clinical work, or completion of an American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) - accredited residency program in the specialty area.

Organizations: