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. Depending on the type of patients or work you like, you can work in a variety of different settings:
Another benefit to having a career as a PT is the job outlook is great. The growth rate for the field is 36% compared to 11% for the rest of the job market. Surprisingly, 20% of physical therapists work in a hospital while nearly 80% work in the other mentioned facilities. You can truly choose an environment that you enjoy and fits your own personal work schedule needs. Find the right PT job today!
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 encouraged to complete a six year Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree where a student is accepted into the program out of high school and the curriculum include 3 years of college level courses and 3 years of graduate school or a traditional 3 year graduate degree program following college degree from an accredited college or university in order to practice physical therapy. Training includes both classroom as well as clinical education in the practice of physical therapy. Current practicing physical therapists with Bachelors or Master’s Degrees are encouraged to complete continuing education requirements to obtain their DPT degrees.
Some courses / topics covered in the DPT curriculum include:
Physical therapists may choose, but are not required, to specialize in specialty areas. Most specialization requires a certain amount of practice as well as additional training. There are additional areas for formal residencies and clinical fellowships as well. Areas of specialization include:
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. Find available positions here.
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*.
Some physical therapist are paid for work by the hour. Median hours worked for full time PTs was 40 and the therapists were paid $36 per hour. Therapists working part time reported a median of 24 hours worked per week at a rate of $40 per hour.
In general, more years as a PT means you will earn more money. However, where you live matters. While salaries have gone up in all parts of the country since 2004, increases were the smallest in Middle Atlantic States (13%) and greatest in the Pacific West (25%). Similarly, differences in salary are seen based on what type of facility you work in. Skilled Nursing/ Long Term Care Facilities paid the highest (median salary $88,000), while school systems paid the least (median salary $70,000). These differences are not surprising based on current workforce needs. Skilled Nursing/ Long Term Care Facilities have the most difficulty recruiting ne PTs so there is currently a premium for working there. On the other hand, there are not huge numbers of vacancies in a school based program and salaries are correspondingly lower.
Occupational therapy and speech pathology 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, 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. Opportunities will include outpatient clinics, hospitals, private practices, home health agencies, schools, and skilled nursing facilities allowing you to test out a work environment before committing to a full time position . You will have options to practice ranging from private practices to more narrowly focused orthopedic treatment centers, or a large hospital. Practices require temporary coverage for multiple reasons such as:
Short-term positions (several weeks or months) also let you “interview” a practice that might be a good permanent fit for you. Since your life is more than work, extended work assignments allow you to assimilate into a community and see if it is a good fir for you much more than a 2 day interview could.
Additionally, as a traveling therapist you get to learn how different venues handle similar problems, business practices, marketing and all the other parts that make up an effective practice. This will give you a tremendous amount and breadth of experience that not only will others not have, but will improve your problem solving and management potential. With more than 20% of therapists owning their own practices or being a partner in a physical therapy practice, being a traveling therapist may give you the skills needed to be your own boss, start your own entrepreneurial adventure, or simply be the managing partner of a small group.
Alternatively, temporary work assignments allow you the freedom to fulfill a passion for travel, scale back your current practice, or participate in social causes important to you. 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. Start your adventure today!
By Pat F. Bass III, M.D., M.S., M.P.H.
Pat is a board certified General Internist and Pediatrician He has served as a reviewer for leading national publications including Pediatrics, the Journal of General Internal Medicine and the Annals of Internal Medicine. Pat is also the asthma guide to About.com, a New York Times Company. Learn more about Pat on Google+
Salary sources: *Bureau of Labor Statistics