Physical therapy is a very rewarding career field. Physical therapists (PT) and physical therapist assistants (PTA) assist patients afflicted with disease or injury return to their prior functional levels, increase mobility, decrease pain, and encourage improved strength and health. PTs and PTAs work within a multidisciplinary healthcare teams that consists of physicians, occupational therapists, psychologists, and occasionally speech therapists. This diversity of providers is also reflected in the types of settings where they deliver care, including hospitals, rehabilitation centers, skilled nursing facilities, outpatient clinics, and schools.
Licensed PTs conduct a comprehensive initial evaluation upon referral by a physician. They review a patient’s past medical history, medications, current diagnosis, current and past activity levels, living conditions and recovery goals. The PT evaluates the patient’s strength, movement, endurance, flexibility and pain levels related to illness, disability or disease.
After the initial evaluation, the PT creates an individualized therapeutic plan, which is derived from the patient’s medical status and objectives. The treatment plan chosen by the therapist will work to improve muscular strength, stamina, flexibility and mobility; reduce pain, and correct movement patterns of muscles and joints influenced by the medical condition.
PTAs work under the supervision of licensed PTs and assist with rehabilitative activities to facilitate reduction of pain and improvement in strength and mobility. They administer, review, and modify individual treatment programs to achieve patient progress and goals.
PTAs provide a variety of physical therapy treatment procedures that consist of therapeutic exercise, balance activities, gait training, neuromuscular re-education, therapeutic modalities and functional testing.
Physical therapy is a significant element of what at times can be a lengthy healing process for patients who are recovering from illnesses, disabilities, surgeries, and injuries. As such, PTs and PTAs must exhibit patience, empathy, and support while assisting patients in regaining their strength, functional mobility, and independence. They must understand that regaining function is often a slow and difficult journey for some patients. PTs and PTAs must be very supportive and positive to the patients they are helping.
Both PTs and PTAs must be comfortable communicating and interacting with patients and their family members, physicians, administrators, nurses, co-therapists and other medical professionals. Professionalism is essential, so it is imperative for PTs and PTAs to be polite, pleasant, and respectful when dealing with patients, their family members, and medical personnel.
Similar to other healthcare professionals, PTs and PTAs must be detail oriented and organized. They must be able to follow written orders from the physician, maintain patients’ records, document their progress, complete discharge summaries, and provide patients with home exercise programs.
PTs and PTAs must also be physically apt. They must often walk, stand, kneel, crouch, and for prolonged periods of time. In addition, they must be able to use their hands to prepare equipment and treatment areas, as well as provide range of motion, manual therapy and therapeutic exercises.
PTs are required to complete a six year Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree from an accredited college or university in order to practice physical therapy. Current practicing physical therapists with Bachelors or Master’s Degrees are encouraged to complete continuing education requirements to obtain their DPT degrees.
In all states, PTs are required to be state licensed in order to practice physical therapy. PTs must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination exam in order to obtain licensure. Continuing education classes must be taken in order to maintain licensure. Some PTs opt to become board certified in a specialized concentration. Board certifications require specialization courses and examinations to be taken.
PTAs must obtain an associate’s degree from an accredited physical therapist assistant program. Physical therapist assistants must be state licensed in order to work as a physical therapist assistant in most states. Continuing education units must also be obtained in order to maintain licensure.
The salary of PTs and PTAs vary based on location, experience, and expertise. As of 2010, the median salary of a PT was $76,310 and $37,710 for a PTA*.
Occupational therapy is probably the most similar job to a physical therapist. Where physical therapists concentrate on exercise and other therapies that build physical strength, flexibility and relieve pain, occupational therapists provide patients with self-care, recreational and work-related treatments to encourage independent living.
Other jobs that share some similar qualities to PT include radiologists, chiropractors, speech language pathologists, nurse practitioners, athletic trainers and physician assistants.
Similar medical fields to PTA jobs are registered nurses, dental assistants, occupational therapist assistants, pharmacy technicians and medical assistants.
There are many benefits for PTs and PTAs working as a traveling therapist. One of the main benefits of traveling therapists and assistants is the flexibility of working in a variety of locations and work environments. Therapists can trial diverse specialties and work settings such as outpatient clinics, hospitals, private practices, home health agencies, schools, and skilled nursing facilities.
Traveling therapists can also enjoy the benefits of higher income potential. Traveling physical therapists and assistants have a tendency to be paid more than their static therapist counterparts.
By Christina Bruns Bhattacharya LPTA, MS
Christina Bhattacharya has been involved in the health and fitness field since 1999. Bhattacharya holds an A.S. in physical therapy from the Community College of the Air Force, a Bachelor of Arts in technical communications from University of Maryland University College and a Master of Science in health management from Lindenwood University. Learn more about Christina on Google+
Salary sources: *Bureau of Labor Statistics