Physical Therapist

Physical therapists, sometimes called PTs, help injured or ill people improve their movement and manage their pain. These therapists are often an important part of rehabilitation and treatment of patients with chronic conditions or injuries.

Interest Area: 
Helping
Average Yearly Pay: 
$72790
Education Needed: 
Graduate Degree
Employment: 
Growing Much Faster Than Average
Job Growth: 
30%
Job Prospects: 
Good

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Job Duties: 

Physical therapists typically do the following:

  • Review patients’ medical history and any referrals or notes from doctors or surgeons
  • Diagnose patients’ dysfunctional movements by observing them stand or walk and by listening to their concerns, among other methods
  • Set up a plan of care for patients, outlining the patient’s goals and the expected outcome of the plan
  • Use exercises, stretching maneuvers, hands-on therapy, and equipment to ease patients’ pain, help them increase their mobility, prevent further pain or injury, and facilitate health and wellness.
  • Evaluate a patient’s progress, modifying a plan of care and trying new treatments as needed
  • Educate patients and their families about what to expect from and how best to cope with the recovery process
  • Career Overview: 

    Physical therapists, sometimes called PTs, help injured or ill people improve their movement and manage their pain. These therapists are often an important part of rehabilitation and treatment of patients with chronic conditions or injuries.

    Duties

    Physical therapists typically do the following:

    • Review patients’ medical history and any referrals or notes from doctors or surgeons
    • Diagnose patients’ dysfunctional movements by observing them stand or walk and by listening to their concerns, among other methods
    • Set up a plan of care for patients, outlining the patient’s goals and the expected outcome of the plan
    • Use exercises, stretching maneuvers, hands-on therapy, and equipment to ease patients’ pain, help them increase their mobility, prevent further pain or injury, and facilitate health and wellness.
    • Evaluate a patient’s progress, modifying a plan of care and trying new treatments as needed
    • Educate patients and their families about what to expect from and how best to cope with the recovery process

    Physical therapists provide care to people of all ages who have functional problems resulting from back and neck injuries; sprains, strains, and fractures; arthritis; amputations; neurological disorders, such as stroke or cerebral palsy; injuries related to work and sports; and other conditions.

    Physical therapists are trained to use a variety of different techniques—sometimes called modalities—to care for their patients. These techniques include applying heat and cold and using assistive devices such as crutches, wheelchairs, and walkers and equipment, such as adhesive electrodes which apply electric stimulation to treat injuries and pain.

    The work of physical therapists varies by type of patient. For example, a patient experiencing loss of mobility due to stroke needs different care from that given to an athlete recovering from an injury. Some physical therapists specialize in one type of care, such as orthopedics or geriatrics. Many physical therapists also work at preventing loss of mobility by developing fitness and wellness programs to encourage healthier and more active lifestyles.

    Physical therapists work as part of a healthcare team, overseeing the work of physical therapist assistants and aides and consulting with physicians and surgeons and other specialists.

    Work Environment: 

    Physical therapists held about 204,200 jobs in 2012. Physical therapists typically work in private offices and clinics, hospitals, and nursing homes.

    The industries that employed the most physical therapists in 2012 were as follows:

    Offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists, and audiologists 33%
    Hospitals; state, local, and private 28
    Home health care services 11
    Nursing and residential care facilities 7
    Offices of physicians 5

    Physical therapists spend much of their time on their feet, working with patients. Because they must often lift and move patients, they are vulnerable to back injuries. Therapists can limit these risks by using proper body mechanics and lifting techniques when assisting patients.

    Work Schedules

    Most physical therapists work full time. About 1 in 4 worked part time in 2012. Although most therapists work during normal business hours, some may work evenings or weekends.

    Education and Training: 

    Physical therapists need a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. All states require physical therapists to be licensed.

    Education

    In 2013, there were 218 programs for physical therapists accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education, all of which offered a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree.

    DPT programs typically last 3 years. Most programs require a bachelor’s degree for admission as well as specific prerequisites, such as anatomy, physiology, biology, chemistry, and physics. Most DPT programs require applicants to apply through the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS).

    Physical therapist programs often include courses in biomechanics, anatomy, physiology, neuroscience, and pharmacology. Physical therapist students also complete clinical internships, during which they gain supervised experience in areas such as acute care and orthopedic care.

    Physical therapists may apply to and complete a clinical residency program after graduation. Residencies typically last about 1 year and provide additional training and experience in specialty areas of care. Therapists who have completed a residency program may choose to specialize further by completing a fellowship in an advanced clinical area.

    Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

    All states require physical therapists to be licensed. Licensing requirements vary by state but all include passing the National Physical Therapy Examination administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. Several states also require a law exam and a criminal background check. Continuing education is typically required for physical therapists to keep their license. Check with state boards for specific licensing requirements.

    After gaining work experience, some physical therapists choose to become a board-certified specialist. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties offers certification in 8 clinical specialty areas, including orthopedics and geriatric physical therapy. Board specialist certification requires passing an exam and at least 2,000 hours of clinical work or completion of an APTA-accredited residency program in the specialty area.

    Important Qualities

    Compassion. Physical therapists are often drawn to the profession in part by a desire to help people. They work with people who are in pain and must have empathy for their patients.

    Detail oriented. Like other healthcare providers, physical therapists should have strong analytic and observational skills to diagnose a patient’s problem, evaluate treatments, and provide safe, effective care.

    Dexterity. Physical therapists must use their hands to provide manual therapy and therapeutic exercises. They should feel comfortable massaging and otherwise physically assisting patients.

    Interpersonal skills. Because physical therapists spend a lot of time interacting with patients, they should enjoy working with people. They must be able to explain treatment programs, motivate patients, and listen to patients’ concerns to provide effective therapy.

    Physical stamina. Physical therapists spend much of their time on their feet, moving as they work with patients. They should enjoy physical activity.

    Resourcefulness. Physical therapists customize treatment plans for patients. They must be flexible and able to adapt plans of care to meet the needs of each patient.

    Pay: 

    The median annual wage for physical therapists was $79,860 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $55,620, and the top 10 percent earned more than $112,020.

    Most physical therapists work full time. About 1 in 4 worked part time in 2012. Although most therapists work during normal business hours, some may work evenings or weekends.

    Job Outlook: 

    Employment of physical therapists is projected to grow 36 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations.

    Demand for physical therapy services will come from the aging baby boomers, who are staying more active later in life than their counterparts of previous generations. Older persons are more likely to experience heart attacks, strokes, and mobility-related injuries that require physical therapy for rehabilitation.

    In addition, the incidence of patients with chronic conditions, such as diabetes and obesity, is growing. More physical therapists will be needed to help these patients maintain their mobility and manage the effects of chronic conditions.

    Advances in medical technology have increased the use of outpatient surgery to treat a variety of injuries and illnesses. Medical and technological developments also are expected to permit a greater percentage of trauma victims and newborns with birth defects to survive, creating additional demand for rehabilitative care. Physical therapists will continue to play an important role in helping these patients recover more quickly from surgery.

    Furthermore, the number of individuals who have access to physical therapy services may increase because of federal health insurance reform. Physical therapists will be needed to assist these patients with rehabilitation and treatment of any chronic conditions or injuries.

    Job Prospects

    Job opportunities will likely be good for licensed physical therapists in all settings. Job prospects should be particularly good in acute-care hospitals, skilled-nursing facilities, and orthopedic settings, where the elderly are most often treated. Job prospects should be especially favorable in rural areas, because many physical therapists live in highly populated urban and suburban areas.

    For More Information: 

    For more information about physical therapists, visit

    American Physical Therapy Association

    For more information about accredited physical therapy programs, visit

    Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education

    For more information about state licensing requirements and about the National Physical Therapy Exam, visit

    Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy

    For more information about certification, visit

    American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties

    For more information about how to apply to DPT programs, visit

    Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS)

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