Physical therapists help injured or disabled patients regain strength, mobility, and function through exercise, manual manipulation, and other rehabilitative techniques. They observe and evaluate patients to determine the extent of their injuries and create a plan of action. They may recommend a specific set of exercises for patients to perform at home or in a rehabilitation facility.
Physical therapists work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, outpatient clinics, private physical therapy practices, and schools. They may work alone or with other health care professionals, such as occupational therapists, speech therapists, and social workers.
Physical therapists work with many types of patients, including those recovering from injuries, those with chronic conditions, and those with developmental disabilities.
Physical Therapist Job Duties
Physical therapists are responsible for a wide range of duties:
- Performing physical assessments to evaluate patients’ conditions and determine appropriate treatment plans
- Creating treatment plans that include exercise, hydrotherapy, electrotherapy, and massage therapy, as well as other modalities depending on the patient’s condition
- Recommending equipment such as crutches or wheelchairs
- Providing advice on home safety and adapting the home environment to accommodate disabilities
- Maintaining appropriate records on each patient’s condition and progress
- Maintaining a safe working environment for patients during treatment sessions
- Educating patients about their condition and how to prevent future problems
- Supervising the progress of patients in their recovery, often working with other healthcare professionals such as physicians, nurses, and occupational therapists
Physical Therapist Salary & Outlook
The U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics reports that, as of May 2020, the median annual wage for physical therapists is $91,010. While the lowest 10% of earners in this field make less than $63,530 per year, the highest earners make more than $126,780.
Job growth for physical therapists is expected to be strong between 2019-2029. The field of physical therapy is expected to grow by 18%, which is significantly more than the average for all occupations. Demand for physical therapists will come in part from the large number of aging baby boomers, who are staying more active later in life than their counterparts of previous generations.
Physical Therapist Job Requirements
Physical Therapist requirements include:
Education: Most physical therapists complete a bachelor’s degree program in physical therapy. Some schools offer master’s degree programs in physical therapy.
Certification: Physical therapists must be licensed by the state in which they practice. Requirements vary by state. In general, physical therapists must have graduated from a physical therapy program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).
Training: Physical therapists must complete a residency program that lasts one to two years. Physical therapists will work with a supervising therapist to learn how to take medical histories, conduct physical exams, and use diagnostic imaging equipment.
Physical Therapist Skills
Physical therapists need to have the following skills:
Interpersonal skills: Therapists must be able to work well with patients, as well as other medical professionals.
Physical stamina: The job requires a great deal of physical stamina, especially for those who work in outpatient settings.
Patience: Patients are often dealing with chronic pain or disabilities that limit their mobility, so they may become frustrated easily or lose motivation during treatment sessions. It takes patience to help them get through their treatment plans successfully.
Hand-eye coordination: Therapists need strong hand-eye coordination in order to manipulate limbs into proper positions for exercise and treatment.
Intelligence: Physical therapists must have a high level of intelligence to handle difficult cases and perform complex procedures.
Physical Therapist Work Environment
Physical therapists work with patients in hospitals, clinics, rehabilitation centers, and private homes. They may be required to travel to evaluate patients or work at a different location than the office.
The environment is a potential downside of physical therapy. Because many of the patients are in pain or coming out of surgery, the environment can be noisy and chaotic. Physical therapists can also be exposed to diseases and pathogens.
They also spend a great deal of time on their feet and can be susceptible to carpal tunnel syndrome.
Physical Therapist Career Advancement
Physical therapists who want to advance their careers may consider becoming a specialist. This can be as simple as focusing on an area of rehabilitation such as pediatrics, orthopedics, or sports medicine. But, it can also mean becoming a specialist with a certain illness or injury, such as arthritis.
Some physical therapists also become educators and provide training to other therapists about the best practices in the field.
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.
Demands for More Versatile Physical Therapists
With the increasing value of preventative care, physical therapists are increasingly being asked to fill roles in primary care practices, working alongside physicians.
For example, one recent study found that primary care physicians who worked with physical therapists saw an average cost savings of over $1,000 per patient. As a result, it is likely that demand for physical therapists will continue to increase as the need for preventative care grows.
Increased Use of Simulation Technology
As simulation technology becomes more advanced, it is being used in a wide range of physical therapy practices.
For example, virtual reality programs can be used to help train medical professionals on the best methods for treating specific injuries or wounds. These same programs can also be used by patients to visualize how they might rehabilitate an injury with the guidance of a physical therapist, reducing the need for extensive physical therapy sessions.
Expanding Focus on Patient Experience
As healthcare costs continue to rise, patients are increasingly taking an active role in their own care. As a result, the focus of physical therapists is beginning to shift from merely fixing injuries and treating disease to educating patients about how they can improve their health with proper diet and exercise.
Physical therapists will also need to expand their knowledge of preventative treatments such as weight loss and mental health counseling so that they can offer patients comprehensive solutions for improving their overall health.
How to Become a Physical Therapist
Planning Your Career Path
One of the most important aspects of pursuing a career as a physical therapist is selecting the right undergraduate degree. For example, students who are interested in the holistic approach of physical therapy should pursue a degree in Kinesiology. If you’re interested in other areas of the medical field, such as orthopedics or cardiovascular care, you may want to consider an undergraduate degree in a relevant field.
Additionally, physical therapists must obtain a license before they can work in the field. Licensing requirements vary by state, but the process typically involves earning a bachelor’s degree, completing an accredited internship, and passing a licensure exam. This process can take several years, so aspiring physical therapists should begin planning early.
Writing a Resume
The best resumes for physical therapists highlight not only clinical experience but also the skills that you possess that make you a great physical therapist. These include knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and therapeutic exercise as well as strong interpersonal skills.
In addition to listing these traits, it’s important that you talk about how you used them in previous roles. For example, if you worked as a trainer at a gym, be sure to mention how you helped others improve their fitness levels. Similarly, if you were a sports trainer, discuss how you helped athletes recover from injuries. The more examples you can provide, the better.
Applying for Jobs
As a physical therapist, it’s important to get your name out there. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there by networking with people who work in the same field. You can attend professional events to meet new people, join Facebook groups, or talk to your coworkers and friends about your job search.
Ace the Interview
The most important thing to remember when you are preparing for an interview as a physical therapist candidate is to keep your eye on the prize! You want this job, so focus on why you want it and what makes you the best person for the position. Show off your passion for helping people, while also showing that you have knowledge of physical therapy practices. You may also be asked about any continuing education or additional certifications; in that case, make sure you can talk about what classes/certifications you plan to take in the future.