What is a physical therapist?
A physical therapist is a healthcare professional who offers services to restore and maintain physical function and mobility in patients. The role is pivotal for people who have suffered injuries, illnesses, or age-related problems that limit their ability to move and perform functional activities in their daily lives. They help individuals to recover their strength, flexibility, and balance, enabling them to move with less pain, discomfort, or difficulty.
These professionals also play an essential role in preventive healthcare. They guide patients in exercises designed to promote optimal movement, reduce the risk of injury, and maintain a high level of physical fitness. They can work with diverse populations, including athletes, elderly individuals, and children with developmental disorders, serving a vital function in improving the quality of life for many people.
Duties and responsibilities
A physical therapist is responsible for diagnosing patients’ functional capabilities and identifying areas that require improvement. They formulate treatment plans based on each patient’s specific needs and goals. These plans may involve therapeutic exercises, stretches, and other techniques to improve mobility and manage pain. A key part of their job is to monitor patients’ progress and adjust treatment plans as necessary to ensure maximum efficacy.
Professionals in this role are also responsible for educating patients and their families about the treatment process. They teach them how to perform certain exercises at home and provide advice on managing their long-term conditions. Another pivotal part of their role is maintaining detailed patient records, documenting treatment sessions, and noting any changes or advancements in patients’ physical health and performance over time
Physical therapists work in various settings, from private practices and hospitals to rehabilitation facilities and nursing homes. Some may also visit patients’ homes or work in school settings if required. Their work environment is generally well-lit and clean, with equipment like treatment tables, resistance bands, and other therapeutic tools readily available.
The job often involves a lot of physical activity as therapists must demonstrate exercises, assist patients with their movements, and help those with difficulty walking. In certain cases, they may need to lift or move patients, which requires physical strength and stamina. Despite the physical demands, many find their work rewarding as they guide their patients toward improved health and mobility.
Typical work hours
Most physical therapists work full-time, although part-time opportunities are common. The working hours can range from standard office hours to evenings and weekends, depending on the setting and demands of the patients. Those working in hospitals or residential care facilities may have more irregular or extended schedules to accommodate the needs of their patients.
Home health physical therapists may have more flexibility in their schedule but might also require travel time during work hours. In schools, these professionals typically follow the school schedule and may have summer months off. Despite the variability in work hours, their important role in patients’ recovery and well-being makes this profession highly rewarding.
How to become a physical therapist
This career guide section outlines the process of becoming a physical therapist. The primary steps generally consist of obtaining the necessary educational credentials, gaining relevant work experience, and securing specific licenses or certifications.
Step 1: Obtain a bachelor’s degree
As an aspiring physical therapist, the first step is to obtain a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university. A degree in a science-related field such as biology, kinesiology, or exercise science can be particularly beneficial. During the undergraduate program, take courses in biology, chemistry, and physics to build a strong foundation for future learning.
Step 2: Apply for a Doctor of Physical Therapy program
After securing a bachelor’s degree, the next step is to apply to a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program. Admission to these programs is often competitive, so maintaining a high GPA in undergraduate work, excellent recommendation letters, and relevant volunteer or work experience can greatly enhance your chances.
Step 3: Complete the DPT Program
Once accepted, you will spend three years in the DPT program. Physical therapy courses will introduce you to neuromuscular, musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, and pulmonary conditions. Also, the DPT program will cover physical therapy research, medical ethics, and medical laws.
Step 4: Complete clinical internships
As part of the DPT program, you must complete several clinical internships. These provide hands-on experience in different physical therapy practices, working with patients under the supervision of experienced professionals. This professional experience gives you practical skills and helps inform your later job decisions.
Step 5: Pass the National Physical Therapy Examination
After finishing the DPT program, you will need to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) to become a licensed physical therapist. The NPTE is based on a comprehensive set of physical therapy knowledge and administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT).
Step 6: Obtain state licensure
Once you’ve passed the NPTE, the next step is applying for state licensure. Licensing requirements vary by state but generally include passage of the NPTE, a law exam if required, and confirmation of your educational and practice credentials.
Step 7: Secure a job and start your career as a physical therapist
Following licensure, you are ready to start your career as a physical therapist! You could work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, patients’ homes, schools, sports and fitness facilities, and more. Begin your job search by networking, checking out online job boards, and applying to openings in your desired location and practice setting.
Step 8: Consider specialization
After advancing in your career, you might consider specializing in a specific area of physical therapy. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) offers board certification in nine fields, including orthopedics, sports, and geriatrics. Earning such a certification involves meeting additional criteria and passing an exam.
How much do physical therapists make?
Physical therapist salaries vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. The level of specialization, such as pediatric physical therapy or sports physical therapy, can also significantly impact their compensation.
Highest paying industries
- Home Health Care Services – $99,440
- Management of Companies and Enterprises – $96,730
- Specialty Hospitals – $95,300
- Employment Services – $93,650
- Outpatient Care Centers – $92,490
Highest paying states
- Nevada – $107,920
- Alaska – $99,180
- New Jersey – $97,770
- California – $97,110
- Texas- $96,220
Types of physical therapists
Below, we explore common career types and areas of specialization for physical therapists. This section offers a detailed overview of the various paths within this profession.
Orthopedic physical therapist
In this specialization, professionals treat conditions affecting the musculoskeletal system. A wide range of patients, from athletes with sport-related injuries to elderly persons with arthritis, can benefit from the services of an orthopedic physical therapist.
Pediatric physical therapist
These therapists specialize in diagnosing, treating, and managing infants, children, and adolescents with congenital, developmental, neuromuscular, skeletal, or acquired diseases/disorders. This line of work involves working closely with a multidisciplinary team that may include occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, and physicians.
Geriatric physical therapist
Therapists in this specialty work with older adults to help them reduce pain, improve mobility, and maintain overall fitness and health. Common conditions they deal with may include arthritis, osteoporosis, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, hip and joint replacement, and balance disorders.
Neurological physical therapist
This type of therapist is often involved in caring for people with a neurological disorder or disease, such as stroke, spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis. They work on restoring and improving these individuals’ mobility, function, and quality of life.
Cardiopulmonary physical therapist
Specializing in the cardiovascular and pulmonary fields, these professionals treat patients who have had heart attacks or suffer from pulmonary diseases. They assist with improving endurance and functional independence through various techniques.
Top skills for physical therapists
This section highlights the skills and traits that will lead to career success as a physical therapist. We will explore the multifaceted abilities, from technical knowledge to interpersonal skills, necessary for a successful career in physical therapy.
Mastery of human physiology
Understanding the intricate workings of the human body is fundamental for professionals in this role. An in-depth knowledge of human anatomy, ailments, and the body’s healing process is required to create effective treatment plans.
Exceptional interpersonal skills
Since physical therapists work closely with their patients, they must be able to establish and maintain positive relationships. Good communication skills will aid in discussing treatment plans effectively, while empathy and patience will help in supporting clients through potentially frustrating rehabilitation processes.
Physical fitness and coordination
Being physically fit and having excellent coordination aids in demonstrating exercises, assisting patients, and avoiding injury. A high degree of dexterity is beneficial when handling equipment or applying specific treatment techniques.
Paying attention to minor details when assessing a patient’s condition can significantly affect the treatment’s success. A meticulous approach to tracking progress and adapting treatment plans is essential.
The role often requires creating tailored treatment plans based on an individual’s unique condition. Strong problem-solving skills can benefit professionals in this field as they determine the best strategies for patient recovery.
Career path options
As a physical therapist, there are numerous opportunities to explore different career paths and advance in the field. Choosing a specialization or obtaining advanced certifications can enhance your career progression and open up many opportunities.
Many therapists choose to specialize in specific areas of health like geriatrics, sports therapy, neurology, or pediatrics. Becoming a specialist opens up opportunities to work more intimately with a subset of the overall patient population. You can provide services in a private practice, hospital, or specialty clinic dedicated to your area of focus.
Other therapists may aspire to become team leaders or managers, which typically requires a few years of experience as a practicing PT before moving into a supervisory role. This may be at a hospital, outpatient center, or private practice where you would coordinate a team of therapists and ensure patients receive the highest quality of care. This role often requires a combination of clinical expertise and business acumen.
Another desirable career track is in education. PTs with a passion for knowledge sharing might find fulfillment as educators, either teaching the next generation of therapists in a traditional university setting or leading continuing education courses for practicing professionals. Over time, you might even advance to a dean or director-level role within an educational institution.
Professionals with a predilection for pioneering new treatment modalities might gravitate toward research roles. Embarking on a research career usually requires additional qualifications, such as a Ph.D. Still, it can provide a rewarding option for those who want to impact the profession on a larger scale.
Finally, with profound experience and expertise, some physical therapists become consultants. These professionals often work independently, guiding healthcare facilities, corporate wellness programs, or athletic teams. This role benefits those who like variety in their work and value the flexibility of setting their own schedules.
Similar job titles
Position trends and outlook
The field of physical therapy is currently experiencing considerable evolution. Changes in healthcare policy and a growing emphasis on patient satisfaction and outcome drive a significant transformation within the profession. Emphasis on quality of care and patients’ needs is proving to be the trend in this field. Technological innovation, such as telemedicine and wearable tech, is increasingly becoming an integral part of therapy plans. This integration is making physical therapy more accessible and convenient for patients, a change that will likely continue.
With a growing aging population, the profession is seeing a rise in demand for services tailored for older adults. Areas like geriatric care, wound care, balance, and fall prevention programs are becoming popular specialties. The trend toward more specialized therapy also extends to the younger population. Children and young adults with developmental and physical challenges are searching for specialized services more than ever. This need for specialized care and personalized patient interactions showcases the escalating importance of interpersonal skills in the profession.
Employment projections for physical therapists
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for physical therapists is projected to grow by 17 percent through 2031. This rate is significantly faster than the average for all occupations. As the Baby Boomer generation ages, the demand for physical therapy services to help them maintain mobility will likely increase, driving job growth in the sector.
Physical therapist career tips
Find your specialization
You will have many opportunities to specialize in this role. Pediatrics, geriatrics, orthopedics, sports injuries, and neurological disorders are just a few examples. By choosing to specialize, you can further hone your skills and increase your demand in the job market. Decide which area interests you the most and consider pursuing education and certifications in that specific field.
Stay updated with the latest research
Physical therapy is a field where new research and techniques are constantly being developed. Keeping up-to-date with the latest findings and best practices is essential for continuous improvement in your line of work.
Build a professional network
Building a strong network can open up opportunities for career growth, mentorship, and learning. Become involved with professional associations and participate in their events, workshops, and forums. Here are some useful organizations to begin with:
- American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)
- Private Practice Section
- World Confederation of Physical Therapy (WCPT)
Invest in continuous learning
There is always more to learn in a dynamic field like physical therapy. Invest in professional development activities such as courses, workshops, webinars, and conferences. Here are some recommended ones to enhance your knowledge:
- Online courses or certificates in specialized therapies like pediatric or geriatric physical therapy
- Workshops or webinars offered by APTA and other reputable bodies in the industry
- Conferences like the Combined Sections Meeting (CSM) of APTA, which offers a multitude of learning experiences in different PT specialties
Certifications not only improve your knowledge and skills but also enhance your credibility in the industry. Depending upon your area of interest, consider getting certified in specialties such as Orthopedic Certified Specialist (OCS), Pediatric Certified Specialist (PCS), or Sports Certified Specialist (SCS).
Where the jobs are
- Physiotherapy Associates
- Kindred Healthcare
- Select Medical
- Genesis Rehab Services
- New York
- The American Physical Therapy Association Careers
What educational qualifications does a physical therapist need?
To pursue this profession, one generally requires a doctoral degree in physical therapy (DPT). The DPT program typically takes about three years to complete. Before you can enter a DPT program, you’ll need to earn a bachelor’s degree with a focus on courses in biology, chemistry, and physics—though a specific pre-physical therapy degree isn’t necessary. After completing the DPT program, obtaining a state license is mandatory.
What are the key skills needed for physical therapists?
In addition to solid educational qualifications, they must have exceptional interpersonal skills as they need to work closely with their patients and the patient’s family. Manual dexterity and physical endurance are also significant as the role involves hands-on therapy and can sometimes be physically demanding. Problem-solving skills also play a key role in developing appropriate treatment plans for patients.
What does a typical day look like for a physical therapist?
They usually start their day by reviewing the patients scheduled for the day. The majority of their day would be spent providing therapy to patients, which can include exercises, massages, and even hydrotherapy. In between, they would also need to document each patient’s progress, adjust treatment plans if needed, communicate with healthcare professionals, and meet with family members to discuss patients’ care and progress. Thus, the day can be quite busy and physically demanding.
What do continuing education requirements look like for physical therapists?
Continuing education is a critical part of this profession. Most states require professionals to complete a certain number of continuing education courses to retain their licenses. These courses help keep them up to date with the latest treatments and techniques in the field of physiotherapy. In addition to these required courses, they may acquire specialty certifications to boost their expertise in particular areas of physical therapy.
What are some challenges that a physical therapist might face?
Professionals in this field can face several challenges. Their workday can be physically exhausting due to the amount of standing, lifting, and manual work involved. They may also face emotional stress, particularly when working with patients with severe disabilities or pain. Some cases can be quite strenuous, as seeing slow or halted progress can be emotionally draining. Balancing a heavy patient load and administrative tasks is another significant challenge in this profession.
What are some ethical considerations in physical therapy?
The profession places a high emphasis on patient rights, dignity, and privacy. The relationship between a patient and therapist should be built on trust and respect. Disclosing the benefits, risks, and costs of treatment to the patient or their family is an important ethical obligation. It’s also crucial to ensure respectful communication, maintain professional boundaries, and handle personal information with the utmost confidentiality.
How does teamwork play a role in physical therapy?
Teamwork is significant in this profession. Often, they must collaborate with a team of other healthcare providers, such as doctors, nurses, occupational therapists, and social workers, to provide comprehensive care to their patients. Communication and cooperation are vital to ensure all patient care aspects are coordinated and executed effectively.
Is there any specific technology that physical therapists use regularly?
Professionals in this field employ various technology to aid treatment and facilitate the recovery process. For example, they might use ultrasound machines, electric muscle stimulation devices, and infrared and cold laser devices. Additionally, they often use different software and mobile applications to document patient notes, create treatment plans, and monitor patients’ progress.
What opportunities for advancement exist for physical therapists?
There are numerous opportunities for career progression in this field. They can choose to specialize in a specific area, such as pediatrics, sports physical therapy, geriatrics, or orthopedics. Some therapists have moved into research, teaching, or administrative roles within healthcare facilities. Some even opt to open their own private practices.