Career Development

What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

Find out what a physical therapist does, how to get this job, and what it takes to succeed as a physical therapist.

Physical therapists are healthcare professionals who help people recover from injuries or illnesses by restoring their mobility and quality of life. They work with a wide range of patients, from those who have recently undergone surgery to older adults who want to remain active as they age.

Physical therapists use a variety of techniques to achieve this goal, including exercise instruction, manual therapy (massage, joint manipulation, etc.), and other interventions.

Physical Therapist Job Duties

Physical therapists have a wide range of responsibilities, which can include:

  • Conducting evaluations to assess patients’ conditions and chart their progress throughout treatment
  • Participating in interdisciplinary meetings with physicians, nurses, social workers, occupational therapists, speech therapists, etc. to discuss patient cases
  • Creating treatment plans that include specific exercises and strategies designed to help patients achieve their goals
  • Preparing patients for rehabilitation by providing education about their conditions and treatment methods
  • Evaluating patients’ physical abilities, diagnosing disabilities, and recommending treatments to improve mobility and reduce pain
  • Observing patients’ gait patterns to identify potential causes of pain or weakness in muscles
  • Teaching patients exercises and activities to improve or maintain their health
  • Assessing patients’ medical histories and conducting physical exams to determine the nature of their injuries or illnesses
  • Teaching patients how to use equipment such as crutches, canes, wheelchairs, or prosthetic limbs

Physical Therapist Salary & Outlook

Physical therapist salaries vary depending on their level of education and experience, the type of patients they treat, and the geographic location of their job.

  • Median Annual Salary: $86,500 ($41.59/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $122,000 ($58.65/hour)

The employment of physical therapists is expected to grow much faster than average over the next decade.

As the large baby-boom population grows older, more people will need physical therapy for conditions such as arthritis and back pain. In addition, many physical therapists work with patients who have had a stroke or orthopedic injury and will continue to do so as the population ages.

Physical Therapist Job Requirements

A physical therapist typically needs to have the following:

Education: Physical therapists need a minimum of a master’s degree to practice. Most physical therapists earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree, which takes an additional two years after earning a master’s degree.

Physical therapists can also earn a bachelor’s degree in physical therapy. This four-year program includes both classroom and clinical instruction.

Training & Experience: After earning a D.P.T., a physical therapist must complete a clinical residency program. These programs typically last two years and provide the physical therapist with hands-on experience in a clinical setting.

Certifications & Licenses: To work in the U.S., a physical therapist will need a state license. To earn this license, you will need to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination administered and approved by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. Some states also require a background check and industry-specific exam.

Physical Therapist Skills

Physical therapists need the following skills in order to be successful:

Communication skills: Physical therapists communicate with patients, other medical professionals, insurance companies and patients’ families. They use verbal and written communication skills to explain treatment plans, answer questions and provide updates on patient progress. They also use communication skills to collaborate with other medical professionals to ensure their patients receive the best care possible.

Physical stamina: Physical stamina refers to the ability to work for long periods of time. Physical stamina is important for physical therapists because they often spend the entire workday with patients. They may need to lift patients or move them from one treatment area to another.

Technological skills: Therapists use computers and other technology to research treatment methods, track patient progress and communicate with other health care professionals. They also use technology to create treatment plans and track patient data.

Problem-solving skills: Therapists use their problem-solving skills to find solutions to their patients’ issues. They may use these skills to find the best treatment plan for their patients or to find ways to help them overcome their challenges. For example, a physical therapist may use their problem-solving skills to help a patient who has a back injury continue to exercise and stay active.

Empathy: Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s perspective and feelings. Therapists use empathy to help patients understand their condition and treatment. For example, a patient may be frustrated by their lack of progress, but a therapist with empathy can understand their feelings and help them understand their progress.

Physical Therapist Work Environment

The work environment for a physical therapist is usually clean, quiet, and well-lit. Most physical therapists work in private offices, clinics, or hospitals. They may also work in nursing homes, schools, or patients’ homes. Physical therapists may work full time or part time. They may also work evenings or weekends to accommodate their patients’ schedules. Some physical therapists may be on call, which means they are available to work at any time. Physical therapists may have to lift or move patients who are unable to walk. They may also have to stoop, kneel, or crouch to reach patients who are in wheelchairs.

Physical Therapist Trends

Here are three trends influencing how physical therapists work. Physical therapists will need to stay up-to-date on these developments to keep their skills relevant and maintain a competitive advantage in the workplace.

The Use of Technology in Physical Therapy

The use of technology in physical therapy is a trend that is quickly gaining popularity, as it allows therapists to provide more efficient and effective treatment.

As physical therapists begin to utilize technology in their practices, they will need to be familiar with the latest devices and software so that they can provide the best possible care for their patients. This includes learning how to use electronic medical records, telehealth systems, and remote monitoring devices.

Patient Education Becomes More Important

Physical therapists are increasingly being asked to play a larger role in patient education. This means that they will need to be able to effectively communicate with patients about their condition and what they can do to help improve it.

In order to be successful in this new role, physical therapists will need to be well-versed in current research and treatments. They will also need to be able to create educational materials that are easy to understand for patients who may not have a background in medicine.

More Focus on Preventative Care

As preventive care becomes more popular, physical therapists will need to focus on providing services that promote health and prevent injuries.

This shift in focus will require physical therapists to develop new skills and expertise in areas such as injury prevention, ergonomics, and biomechanics. In addition, they will need to be able to work with other professionals in the healthcare field to create comprehensive plans for patient care.

How to Become a Physical Therapist

A physical therapist career offers many opportunities for growth and specialization. You can focus on a particular area of practice, such as sports medicine or orthopedics; work with a specific population, such as children or the elderly; or specialize in a treatment method, such as acupuncture or massage therapy.

No matter what stage of your career you’re at, it’s important to stay up-to-date on the latest research and best practices in your field. Attend continuing education courses and workshops, read professional journals and newsletters, and network with other therapists.

Related: How to Write a Physical Therapist Resume

Advancement Prospects

As a physical therapist (PT), you can advance in a number of ways. You can move up within your current organization by taking on additional responsibilities, such as supervising physical therapy aides or serving as a clinical instructor for physical therapy students. You can also advance by becoming a PT manager or administrator.

If you’re interested in clinical research, you can pursue a career as a PT researcher. You can also advance by becoming a PT educator, working in a physical therapy program at a college or university.

In addition, you can pursue specialty certification in a particular area of physical therapy, such as geriatrics, cardiopulmonary, neurology, or orthopedics. Specialty certification can lead to advancement in your career, as well as higher earnings.

Physical Therapist Job Description Example

At [CompanyX], we provide individualized physical therapy services to help our patients achieve their highest level of function and quality of life. We are currently seeking a licensed physical therapist to join our team. The ideal candidate will have experience working with patients of all ages and abilities, and will be able to create and implement individualized treatment plans. He or she will be compassionate and patient, with excellent communication and interpersonal skills.

As a physical therapist at [CompanyX], you will be responsible for evaluating and treating patients, as well as documenting progress and communicating with patients, families, and other members of the healthcare team. You will also be responsible for maintaining a high standard of care and upholding the ethical and professional standards of the physical therapy profession.

Duties & Responsibilities

  • Help patients improve their quality of life by reducing pain and improving mobility
  • Develop individualized treatment plans based on each patient’s specific needs and goals
  • Perform initial assessments to determine the nature and extent of each patient’s dysfunction
  • Select and administer appropriate physical therapy interventions
  • Educate patients and families about what to expect from therapy and how they can participate in their own recovery
  • Monitor patients’ progress and modify treatments as needed
  • Keep detailed records of all treatments and outcomes
  • Communicate regularly with patients’ physicians to ensure coordinated and comprehensive care
  • Maintain a clean and safe working environment
  • Stay up-to-date on new developments in physical therapy
  • Attend continuing education courses to keep licensure current
  • Supervise physical therapy assistants and aides

Required Skills and Qualifications

  • Doctoral degree in physical therapy from an accredited program
  • Current state license as a physical therapist
  • Minimum of two years clinical experience as a licensed physical therapist
  • Demonstrated knowledge of current physical therapy theories, practices, and techniques
  • Excellent communication, interpersonal, and customer service skills
  • Ability to work independently and with a team

Preferred Skills and Qualifications

  • Experience working in an outpatient physical therapy clinic
  • Experience with electronic medical records
  • Bilingual (English/Spanish)
  • Specialty certification in an area of physical therapy practice

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