Physical therapists are healthcare specialists that work with patients who have experienced physical injury. When a patient suffers an athletic injury, or a neurological condition like a stroke or heart attack, physical therapists are called to help patients regain movement and return to a desired quality of life.
When meeting with a patient, a physical therapist is responsible for assessing the degree to which a patient’s physical abilities have been impaired. Then, they design a suitable treatment plan based on the extent of the patient’s injuries. Physical therapy generally involves specially tailored exercises or movements that help improve range of motion, coordination and rebuild muscle strength.
Physical therapists generally work in hospitals or other healthcare facilities, seeing patients that have been recommended to them from other care providers. Other options do exist, however, and include working for athletic organizations, universities or even large companies who contract physical therapists to help with workplace injuries.
Education and Training Requirements
In the past, all aspiring physical therapists were required to attain a master’s degree in physical therapy. As of 2013, however, master’s degrees have been phased out in favor of the new Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. A DPT program is typically three years in length and requires a bachelor’s degree for admission.
For those considering a DPT program, it is advised that applicants focus undergraduate coursework on the life sciences: biology, anatomy and physiology. Other general science and mathematics courses may also be required depending on the desired program.
After completion of a DPT program, physical therapists must complete a one-year residency program in a clinical healthcare facility. Residencies can help provide training in various specializations of physical therapy, and help pave the way for an optional fellowship that can provide advanced training in a specialization of choice. While fellowships are not required, they can provide opportunities to further distinguish a therapist’s profile and clarify individual interests and expertise.
Physical therapists must be licensed to practice, with each state differing slightly in specific requirements to sit for an examination. While the individual details may differ, with some states requiring background checks or additional exams, all states currently require a passing score on the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE), offered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT). For information on the NPTE, the FSBPT and on any local requirements, interested students should contact state licensure boards.
Job Outlook and Salary
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected a growth rate of 36% for physical therapists from 2012 to 2022. This is a much higher rate than the national average across all other professions, reflecting an aging population and its projected need for mobility care and post-accident recovery services.
In addition, the BLS reported a median annual salary for physical therapists of $81,030 as of May 2013. The lowest 10% of professionals in terms of wages reported earning less than $56,280, while the highest 10% reported earning more than $113,340.
Employment prospects and salary ranges may vary based on an individual’s work history and educational qualifications.
Is a Career in Physical Therapy Right for You?
In addition to a strong anticipated growth rate and competitive salary, physical therapists typically have an active workplace, as they aren’t confined to working at a desk. This is a fundamentally dynamic profession, requiring the ability to move around and directly assist patients with their problem areas. Strong communication skills are also typically a requirement to help facilitate patient interaction. If you are looking for a rewarding career with a hands-on component in providing direct patient care, physical therapy may be an excellent choice.