Physical Therapy Careers
What Is Physical Therapy?
Physical therapists (PTs) provide care to people of all ages. An important member of treatment, rehabilitation, and prevention plans, they help individuals manage pain and improve movement from injuries caused by accidents, injuries related to work or sports, or from fractures and sprains, arthritis, neurological disorders, and other chronic conditions.
PTs may specialize in one area of care, such as in the development of treatment plans for athletes, or they may choose to work in a variety of areas and sectors. Either way, the work will vary from one patient to the next, each with its own set of issues and results.
Specific job functions may include:
- Performing tests to identify problems
- Assessing and interpreting tests and evaluations to determine best course of treatment
- Helping clients achieve goals by assisting with physical exercises, and in the use of supportive devices, such as canes or crutches
- Administering physical therapy; using moist packs, therapy aids, such as bands or weights, giving massages
- Directing treatments by technicians, assistants and aides
- Evaluating, observing, and recommending treatment plans; adjusting or modifying plans as necessary
- Assuring continuation of plans following discharge
- Consulting with physicians, nurses, and other healthcare professions in the care of patients
- Documenting and charting patient records
Besides the above, a physical therapist must also have patience, compassion, empathy, and have physical strength to ensure patient confidence and trust. PTs must have motivational skills, be a good communicator, and be both positive and confident. And because patients/clients often feel vulnerable both during and after treatment, it is the job of a PT to help ease their nerves.
A career in physical therapy allows individuals to specialize in one particular area, such as orthopedics, or offer a broad focus. Regardless, it is imperative to stay up-to-date on all of the latest equipment and techniques to ensure clients receive the optimal care and treatment and reach their maximum functional potential.
Working Conditions of a Physical Therapist
Physical therapists work in hospitals, clinics, long- and short-term care facilities, and in private residences. According the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 34-percent of all physical therapists work in the offices of occupational, physical, or speech therapists, and audiologists. Many physical therapists travel as part of their job, and are required to stand, bend and lift while working with clients and patients.
Other common workplaces may include:
- Athletic training centers
- Acute care or intensive care units
- Orthopedic and surgical floors
- Emergency department
- Oncology wards
- Cardiac rehabilitation
- Geriatric floors
The career of physical therapists is usually very physical and requires a great deal of physical strength and stamina. Most therapists work a regular workweek (9 to 5), but many also are required to work evenings and weekends, clocking periods of overtime.
How to Become a Physical Therapist
The work of physical therapists touches people from all walks of life at any age. They may work with someone in an assisted living facility that was just released from the hospital after breaking a hip, or a professional athlete who suffered a torn ligament at his last big game. As the population ages, yet remains active, physical therapists will see continued opportunities to advance within the field, as well as enter this field right out of completing their education requirements. This begins with earning a degree from an accredited college or university.
Most master’s and doctoral physical therapy programs require students to first earn a bachelor’s degree in physical therapy, or a very closely related healthcare field. However, some schools offer a combined undergraduate/doctoral degree program that allows students to graduate with both a bachelor’s and doctoral degree. Undergraduate students who volunteer at hospitals or clinics gain valuable experience while observing licensed professionals. Volunteering is also typically required for admission into doctoral programs.
All individuals must earn a doctoral degree in physical therapy (DPT) in order to practice as a physical therapist. To illustrate how fast this field is growing, there were more than 200 physical therapy programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) in 2015 alone. DPT programs typically last at least three years.
Alongside seven months of supervised experience in a clinical setting, coursework at the doctoral level usually includes lab and classroom instruction in medical diagnostics, patient examination, patient evaluation, orthotics, prosthetics, and medical screening. Clinical experience is unmatched in preparing therapists for careers in which they interact with clients every day, as well as providing valuable time in the trenches that can lead to full time employment upon graduation. Therapists who wish to specialize in a particular area can apply to and complete a residency program, which usually lasts about one year and provides additional on-the-job training.
The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) offers eight designations for physical therapists seeking advancement in the field. The eight specialties include:
- Sports - both amateur and professional athletics
- Clinical electrophysiology
- Cardiovascular & pulmonary
- Women’s health
Therapists applying for ABPTS certification must have at least 2,000 hours of practice, must be licensed, and must pass a certification exam that measures the skills and knowledge in their specialty.
Physical therapists must be licensed in the state where they wish to practice. After completing an accredited physical therapy program, individuals must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy to become licensed. The examination assesses an applicant's knowledge in practice, physical therapy theory, and consultation.
Many physical therapists complete their residency after graduating from a DPT program. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), programs include 1,500 hours of clinical physical therapy practice to be completed within nine to 36 months. Residencies allow individuals to diagnose and examine patients under the direct supervision of a licensed physical therapist(s). Individuals will often also contribute to medical research and supervise other healthcare professionals while in residency.
Physical Therapist Salary and Wage Expectations
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, physical therapists earn an annual median salary of $84,020 (2015). Wage expectations depend on level of education, geographic location, and industry or sector with the lowest 10-percent earning $57,060, and the highest 10-percent earning upwards of $119,000. The top five areas for employment in order of demand, are: home healthcare services, nursing and residential care facilities, hospitals (state, local and private), private offices, and offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists, and audiologists. Most physical therapists work full-time, 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, although it’s not uncommon that some, especially those who work with patients in their homes, may work weekends and overtime.
Job Outlook for Physical Therapists
With demand for trained physical therapists spreading into many areas, it’s no surprise that this field is growing at a rate of 34-percent, which is much faster than average for all careers. In part, this is from the growing number of baby boomers who are staying active longer than in previous generations. This is also in part because of a growing number of chronic conditions, outpatient surgeries, and a population of individuals who are overweight or have diabetes.
The BLS expects career opportunities to continue in an upward swing in all settings, and should be particularly strong in areas where the elderly are treated, such as acute care facilities, nursing and assistive living facilities and in orthopedic settings. Physical therapists will also see increased opportunities in rural areas, as many therapists prefer to live and work in larger populations.
Occupational Therapists (OTs): OT’s diagnose and treat patients who are injured, ill, or disabled. They help their patients/clients develop the skills – motor, personal, social, and vocational – necessary for daily living. They often travel to client's homes and use assistive devices to regain independence.
Recreational Therapists: Recreation therapists rehabilitate and restore a person’s level of independence and functioning. They promote well being and eliminate limitations that inhibit an individual’s ability to participate in daily life.
Speech-Language Pathologists: Speech-language pathologists work to diagnose, assess, treat, and prevent speech, language, and social / cognitive communication, as well as swallowing disorders in people of all ages.
Chiropractors: Chiropractors use hands-on manipulation (and often other alternative treatments) to properly align the body’s musculoskeletal structure that helps the body heal itself without surgery or medication.
Audiologists: An audiologist is a health-care professional who specializes in diagnosing and treating disorders of the auditory and vestibular portions of the ear. They are trained to diagnose, manage and treat hearing problems and tinnitus, as well as balance problems.
Additional Resources and Further Reading
- The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)
- American Council of Academic Physical Therapy
- American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties
- Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy
- American Board of Physical Therapy Residency and Fellowship Education
- American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties
- Foundation of Physical Therapy
- Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy