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Physical Therapist vs. Nurse: What Are the Differences?

Learn about the two careers and review some of the similarities and differences between them.

Physical therapists and nurses are both health care professionals who provide care and support to patients. Though there are similarities between these two positions, there are also several key differences. In this article, we discuss the similarities and differences between physical therapists and nurses, and we provide additional information about each profession.

What is a Physical Therapist?

Physical Therapists are health care professionals who work with patients to improve their movement and function. They work with patients who are recovering from injuries, surgeries or other conditions that limit their ability to move. Physical Therapists develop individualized treatment plans to help patients regain their strength and range of motion. They may use a variety of techniques, including exercises, stretching, massage and electrical stimulation. Physical Therapists also provide education and guidance to patients and their families to help them prevent further injuries and improve their overall health.

What is a Nurse?

Nurses provide direct patient care in a variety of settings, including hospitals, clinics, physician offices, and home health agencies. They work closely with physicians and other health care professionals to plan, implement, and evaluate patient care. Nurses also teach patients and their families how to manage their illness or injury. Nurses work in a variety of specialty areas, such as critical care, emergency room, neonatal, and pediatric nursing. They may also work as nurse practitioners, which is a type of advanced practice registered nurse that can provide primary and specialty health care services.

Physical Therapist vs. Nurse

Here are the main differences between a physical therapist and a nurse.

Job Duties

Physical therapists carry out a variety of tasks to help their patients recover from injuries and illnesses. They evaluate patients to determine the best course of treatment, then develop personalized rehabilitation programs that include both physical therapy and instruction on lifestyle changes. Physical therapists also monitor patients during treatment to ensure they’re progressing as expected, track progress and communicate with other healthcare professionals involved in the patient’s care.

Nurses’ job duties are more focused on direct patient care. They perform diagnostic and laboratory tests, then interpret results and communicate them to nursing supervisors and physicians. Nurses provide basic medical care such as bathing and feeding patients, monitor patients’ vital signs and report any changes in status and all medications. They also educate patients about their conditions and guide them through the recovery process.

Job Requirements

Physical therapists (PTs) must complete a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program to enter the field. These programs usually take three years to finish and include both academic coursework and clinical rotations, where students gain hands-on experience working with patients. PTs must also pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) before they can obtain licensure in their state. Some states require PTs to complete continuing education credits to renew their license, but this varies by state.

To become a registered nurse (RN), you must first earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing from an accredited program. Alternatively, you could pursue an associate degree in nursing, which would take about half as long to complete. After graduating, you must then pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). RNs must also obtain a license from their state’s board of nursing. The requirements for licensure vary by state, but most states require RNs to complete continuing education credits to renew their licenses every few years.

Work Environment

Physical therapists and nurses both work in hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and private practices. However, physical therapists may also work in schools or sports teams to help athletes recover from injuries. Nurses can find employment in a variety of settings, including doctors’ offices, outpatient clinics, emergency rooms, psychiatric facilities and prisons.

Physical therapists typically work more hours than nurses, with an average of 50 to 60 per week. They often work during the day, but some may work at night or on weekends if they’re providing care for patients who are recovering from surgery. Physical therapists may travel between different locations to provide services to their patients. Nurses usually work 40 to 48 hours per week, although overtime is common. They may work nights, weekends or holidays depending on the needs of their facility.

Skills

Both physical therapists and nurses use problem-solving skills in their jobs. For physical therapists, they need to be able to assess a patient’s condition and develop a plan of care that will address the patient’s specific needs. Nurses also need to be able to assess patients’ conditions and make decisions about their care.

Both physical therapists and nurses need to have excellent communication skills. Physical therapists need to be able to explain complicated medical information to patients and their families. They also need to be able to listen to patients so they can understand their symptoms and how their condition is impacting their daily life. Nurses need to be able to communicate with patients, their families and other members of the healthcare team.

Physical therapists need to have strong critical thinking skills. They often need to make split-second decisions about a patient’s care. Nurses also need to have strong critical thinking skills. They often are the first line of defense when it comes to identifying changes in a patient’s condition.

Nurses need to have strong organizational skills. They often are responsible for managing multiple patients at one time and need to be able to prioritize their care.

Salary

Physical therapists earn an average salary of $84,744 per year, while nurses earn an average salary of $72,127 per year. Both of these salaries can vary depending on the type of nurse or physical therapist you are, your level of experience and the location of your job.

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