Physical Therapy as a Career

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As a physical therapist, you are trained to diagnose and treat individuals of all ages who have medical problems or other health-related conditions that limit their abilities to move and perform functional activities in their daily lives. You examine each individual and develop a treatment plan that helps restore function, improve mobility, relieve pain, and prevent or limit permanent disabilities for patients suffering from injuries or disease. You'll also help restore, maintain, and promote overall fitness and health through wellness-oriented programs that develop more active lifestyles.

Your education in physical therapy starts with basic science courses such as biology, chemistry, and physics, and then introduces specialized courses, including biomechanics, neuroanatomy, human growth and development, manifestations of disease, examination techniques, and therapeutic procedures. In addition to classroom and laboratory instruction, you'll receive supervised clinical experience where you examine patients' medical histories and then test and measure strength, range of motion, balance and coordination, posture, muscle performance, respiration, and motor function. Your treatment plan identifies appropriate exercises that encourage patients to use their muscles and increase capacity and endurance in these areas.

Pre-professional education should include courses in anatomy, biology, chemistry, social science, mathematics, and physics. Experience as a volunteer in the physical therapy department of a hospital, clinic, or with a high school athletic trainer will benefit your application to physical therapy educational programs. Strong interpersonal skills will help you educate your patients about physical therapy treatments, better communicate with patients' families, and provide compassionate treatment.

All states require physical therapists to pass national and state examinations and be licensed in the state of practice. An important member of the health care team, you'll provide your knowledge of physical therapy in consultation with other professionals such as physicians, dentists, nurses, educators, social workers, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, and audiologists. Some PTs treat a wide range of ailments; others specialize in areas such as pediatrics, geriatrics, sports medicine, neurology, or cardiopulmonary physical therapy.

Nearly 60 percent of physical therapists work in hospitals, clinics, or private practice. You may also be employed in home healthcare, nursing care facilities, outpatient care centers, physician offices, rehabilitation centers, adult day care programs, or schools. Physical therapists also teach in academic institutions and conduct research. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment in the field will grow 28 percent through 2026, much faster than average for all occupations. Demand will be spurred by increasing numbers of individuals with disabilities or limited function, chronic or debilitating conditions associated with aging, and children saved by technology but with severe birth defects, or people who must cope with the aftermath of trauma.

According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA):

  • With just a 0.2 percent unemployment rate, physical therapists are now experiencing the best employment conditions since the enactment of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.
  • Physical therapists formed their first professional association in 1921, the American Women's Physical Therapeutic Association, led by Mary McMillan. By the end of the 1930s, both genders were admitted and membership grew to nearly 1,000 practitioners.
  • During the 1940s and 1950s, demand increased significantly for physical therapists to collaborate in treating the nationwide polio epidemic.

If you want to be the type of healthcare provider who sees a whole person rather than a symptom or illness; someone who gets to know your patients as people and wants to be involved in your community; someone who is compassionate, has a healing touch, and communicates well; and someone who enjoys knowing a diverse range of people from different backgrounds, a career in physical therapy may be just right for you.

Sources: American Physical Therapy Association; US Bureau of Labor Occupational Outlook Quarterly; http://ExploreHealthCareers.org

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