Physical Therapy Profession: Education And Practice Opportunities

The Profession of Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is a recognized and respected profession in the United States. It began as a career in the early 1900’s following World War I. To meet the increasing demand for trained physical therapy providers, the profession’s education evolved from the certificate level to the current post-baccalaureate entry level. In the 1970’s a need for a trained assistant was identified within the profession; thus began the development of a separate educational program for physical therapist assistants. Key differences between a physical therapist (PT) and physical therapist assistant (PTA) are educational degree and provision of the patient/client management model, which consists of examination, evaluation, diagnosis, prognosis, and intervention. Physical therapists are educated in an accredited program at the college or university level, usually requiring a minimum of six years of education. In addition to being responsible for the patient/client management model, physical therapists are responsible for the direction and supervision of physical therapist assistants. In turn, physical therapist assistants are technically trained paraprofessionals who receive their education from an accredited program, which typically spans two-three years. Physical therapist assistants provide selected elements of examination and intervention within a specified plan of care developed by the physical therapist. Both physical therapists and physical therapist assistants are integral components of the health care delivery system. The focus of this briefing paper specifically addresses physical therapists.

What Is A Physical Therapist?

A physical therapist is a highly educated, licensed health care professional whose focus is human movement and function. Physical therapists, or physiotherapists as they are known globally, work with patients/clients across the lifespan to examine and evaluate patients/clients, reduce pain, promote health and wellness, improve or restore mobility, and teach principles of prevention and self-care. Optimal function and quality of life are key outcomes of physical therapy interventions. Physical therapists work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, schools, independent private practices, rehabilitation centers, skilled nursing facilities, industries, and patient/client homes. Within the profession, various roles physical therapists fulfill include clinician, researcher, educator, administrator, and consultant. Physical therapists respect and work effectively with other health care providers such as occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, physicians, nurses, and more to provide the best possible care to each patient/client under their care.

How Do I Become A Physical Therapist?

In the United States, students must successfully complete an accredited entry-level program to be eligible to take the national licensing examination. Over 90% of U.S. entry-level physical therapy programs award the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. The average professional DPT program is typically three (3) years in length and consists of 115 credits. In addition to class/laboratory courses, students complete an average of 36 weeks of full-time clinical internship experiences. A typical student admitted to an entry-level DPT program has completed a bachelor’s degree (over 85% of DPT programs require completion of a bachelor’s degree prior to enrollment) and attained a 3.5 grade point average. Prerequisite courses required for admission to a U.S. physical therapy program include chemistry, physics, human/vertebrate anatomy and physiology, and statistics. To practice as a physical therapist in the U.S. an individual must graduate from an accredited entry-level program and pass the national licensure examination. Each U.S. state regulates practice through the licensure process; eligibility requirements vary by state.

Career Opportunities

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, expected job growth for physical therapists in the U.S. from 2008-2018 is 30%. Physical therapists enjoy the ability to work in many settings. Many physical therapists work in outpatient orthopedic settings that may be corporate or independently owned. Physical therapists in outpatient orthopedic settings typically see patients with musculoskeletal pain and joint dysfunction. Opportunities exist to practice in specialty outpatient clinics that focus on specific patient populations, such as pediatrics, or types of patients based on diagnoses (multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, etc). Hospitals are another common employer of physical therapists. In the hospital setting, physical therapists are involved in the care of patients during acute care episodes (recent surgery or recovering from an illness/injury). Some hospitals provide long term rehabilitation units where physical therapists work with patients who have had a stroke, traumatic brain injury, or complex multiple system involvement. Many physical therapists pursue career paths that can include clinical specialization, management, or education. There are currently eight recognized clinical specialties within the American Physical Therapy Association: cardiovascular and pulmonary, clinical electrophysiology, geriatrics, neurology, orthopedics, pediatrics, sports, and women’s health with over 11,000 certified specialists nationally. Professional development opportunities also exist to enhance practice through residency programs in areas such as geriatrics and orthopedics. Criteria for specialization and residency vary according to the practice area. Physical therapists who choose to become educators can do so in a variety of settings, from the corporate world where they provide injury prevention programs and consultation to higher education settings in either physical therapist assistant or entry-level DPT educational programs. A standard requirement for teaching in a DPT program is completion of a post-professional doctorate degree (PhD or equivalent) in a chosen field of expertise, such as anatomy, biomechanics, kinesiology, education, or rehabilitation sciences.

How Can I Make A Difference As A Physical Therapist

Physical therapy is an incredibly rewarding and satisfying profession. Working with patients/clients to achieve their highest level of function following an illness or injury is inspiring. Making a difference in an individual’s life is a meaningful experience and journey. When this is multiplied by the positive effects it has on the patient’s/client’s family, it is easy to see how touching one life has a ripple effect. Affecting even more lives can be accomplished through the education of future physical therapy professionals, whether it is in the academic or clinical setting. Becoming a physical therapist can be arduous; gaining admission to an educational program is competitive and the programs are intensive. But the rewards and opportunities awaiting new professionals are worth every second involved in the pursuit.