You don’t need to be a physician to have a valuable and essential role in the healthcare industry. A number of providers, other than doctors, can make a difference in the overall health and well-being of people. Physical therapists work directly with patients who have chronic conditions or need rehabilitation to recover from a serious injury or illness. They help patients to increase their range of motion, overcome pain, and prevent further injury. If you have the compassion, dexterity, and resourcefulness needed to help patients perform therapeutic exercises, the only thing standing between you and a physical therapy career is earning the right degree and qualifications.
Below, we discuss the different undergraduate degrees for physical therapy, the best degree path for becoming a physical therapist, and relevant information pertaining to the job. We also highlight the earnings potential and job outlook for this important healthcare profession.
A Doctoral Degree
Aspiring physical therapists should expect to spend several years in school preparing for their career. Physical therapists enter the occupation with a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree.
The first step to earning a DPT degree is to complete your undergraduate education. Some colleges and universities offer bachelor’s degree programs in physical therapy, but the major is not required. In fact, students often choose to study subjects like health sciences; physiology; biology; exercise science; or another discipline that includes coursework in anatomy, biology, chemistry, physics, and physiology. Undergraduate degrees for physical therapy vary. Most science disciplines offer common prerequisites for DPT programs.
An important thing to remember as an undergraduate student is that you are not bound to a particular discipline to enter physical therapy school. However, it is also important to remember that certain courses will be relevant to your career. The most common undergraduate degrees for those in physical therapy include biology, exercise physiology, and kinesiology. If you already hold a bachelor’s degree, you may need to complete post-graduate courses in order to be eligible for physical therapy school admission.
But, simply taking and passing prerequisite courses won’t necessarily get you admitted to PT school. You must show yourself to be a competitive candidate. Most physical therapy schools have minimum GPA requirements. Many admit students with GPAs above 3.5. Also, schools may ask for competitive GRE scores. Again, PT schools may require certain minimum scores. It is important to review school requirements early on in your academic career so that you find the right PT program for you. In addition to undergraduate education, GPA, and GRE scores, getting into PT school may require a certain number of hours of volunteer experience. Volunteer hours must be completed under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist. While some schools do not require the completion of volunteer hours, they are highly recommended, and the amount may vary from zero to 300 hours. Practice settings that should be obtained include acute care hospitals, long-term care facilities, rehabilitation centers, skilled nursing facilities and nursing homes, subacute rehab facilities, and wellness or fitness programs, to name a few.
When students complete their undergraduate degree, they can apply to one of the more than 270 Doctor of Physical Therapy degree programs that have been accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. During their doctoral education, students gain real-world experience through clinical internships, as well as through coursework in anatomy, biomechanics, neuroscience, pharmacology, and physiology. Upon completing DPT degree requirements, new physical therapists may spend a year gaining additional experience through a clinical residency program.
The DPT degree and the knowledge and clinical experience that accompany it are important to achieving your dream of being a physical therapist, but they’re not the only stipulation. After graduating from a Doctor of Physical Therapy program, candidates must earn a license in the state in which they intend to practice. Different states have different requirements, but every state requires candidates to earn a passing score on the National Physical Therapy Examination. In addition to earning a license and maintaining it through meeting continuing education requirements, some physical therapists choose to go above and beyond and earn certification in a specialty area from the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties. Opportunities offered by the American Board of Physical Therapy Residency & Fellowship Education (ABPTRFE) include 347 accredited residency programs and 46 accredited fellowship programs. Clinical specialty areas in which you can earn certification include the areas of geriatrics, orthopedics, physical therapy, and sports.
Other Important Qualities for Physical Therapists
As with most healthcare positions, certain personal qualities are necessary to the role of a physical therapist. Some of these qualities or characteristics cannot be taught in the classroom, but are rather learned and acquired with practice and experience. Below are several important qualities to have for success as a physical therapist.
Compassion: When interacting closely with patients in need of care, it helps to have compassion. Physical therapists should have a strong desire to help and care for people. Since they work with individuals in pain, they should also have empathy for their patients. Compassion is a requirement of a successful physical therapist.
Dexterity: Physical therapists must exhibit good manual dexterity. The job requires the use of one’s hands to provide manual therapy, massage techniques, and therapeutic exercises. Physical therapists should feel comfortable physically assisting their patients.
Physical stamina: Physical therapists spend a lot of time on their feet. They should enjoy physical activity and instruction, as time is spent demonstrating exercises, stretches, and proper mobility techniques. They must be able to show patients how to perform activities. All of these demonstrations require PTs to have good physical stamina.
Resourcefulness: In healthcare, no two patients are the same. Physical therapists must customize treatment plans for each individual patient based on their needs, pain level, objectives, and goals. Physical therapists should also be flexible and willing to adapt care plans to meet patient needs.
Strong communication skills: Since much of the day is spent working with patients, demonstrating proper exercises, and explaining treatment programs, it is important for a physical therapist to have strong communication skills. It is also important for a physical therapist to be upbeat, positive, and a strong motivator in order to encourage their patients to complete a given task. Physical therapists should also be good listeners, as they must address patient concerns.
Strong time-management skills: Physical therapists see more than one patient in a day. In fact, some physical therapists may treat more than one patient at a time. In order to offer the best care, strong time-management skills are necessary. In addition to offering appropriate patient care, physical therapists must complete administrative and billing tasks, document patient progress, and handle any insurance issues that may arise.
Earnings Potential for Physical Therapists
Work in healthcare can be as financially rewarding as it is personally fulfilling, with professionals in the field earning an average of over $2.6 million during their working lifetimes. Physical therapists, in particular, enjoy high earnings potential. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for physical therapists is $91,010. While the lowest 10% earn an average of $63,530 or less, the highest 10% earn over $126,000 per year.
Most physical therapists work full time, though weekends and evenings may be necessary to accommodate client schedules. For the most part, PTs work during traditionally scheduled business hours. According to BLS, there are four industries that offer high earnings for physical therapists. Nursing and residential care facilities are listed among the top-paying industries for PTs. In nursing and care facilities, physical therapists see median annual wages of $97,610. As a result, nursing and residential care is the highest-paying industry for physical therapists. Home healthcare services is the second-highest-paying industry for physical therapists, according to BLS. In this industry, PTs can expect average annual wages of $95,320. Hospitals (local, private, and state) are listed by BLS as the third-highestpaying industry for this occupation. In hospitals, the average earnings for PTs is $93,060. Lastly, the fourth-highest-paying industry for physical therapists is offices of physical, occupational, and speech therapists and audiologists. Physical therapists working in any one of these areas can expect to see average earnings of $85,680.
Earnings may also vary by geographic location. The Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics data published by BLS indicates five top-paying states for physical therapists. This means that physical therapists working in any one of these states can expect higher-than-average earnings. In some cases, PTs working in these states see 15k-20k more than the average pay for this occupation.
The highest-paying state for physical therapists is Nevada. In this state, PTs earn an annual mean wage of $108,580. Other high-paying states offering above-average earnings for physical therapists include California, Alaska, New Jersey, and Connecticut. In California, the second-highest-paying state for PTs, the occupation sees average earnings of $104,500. In Alaska, PTs can expect average earnings of $101,190. The remaining two states offer earnings of $100,740 (New Jersey) and $100,580 (Connecticut).
Certain metropolitan areas also offer high wages for physical therapists. Metro areas in California, Arizona, and Nevada are among the top-paying metropolitan areas for physical therapists. According to BLS, the top-paying metro area for PTs is El Centro, California. In this region, physical therapists earn an annual mean wage of $143,500, which is over $52,000 more than the average earnings for this occupation. Modesto, California also offers high earnings for PTs. In this California metro area, physical therapists see an annual mean wage of $123,370. Other high-paying metro areas for PTs include Visalia-Porterville, California; Bakersfield, California; and Yuma, Arizona.
There are also five top-paying non-metropolitan areas for physical therapists. While wages for this occupation are typically lower in non-metro areas than in metropolitan areas, earnings in some places are still higher than the overall average of $91,010. In Eastern New Mexico–the top-paying non-metro area–physical therapists see an annual mean wage of $113,860. The second-highest-paying non-metro area is Nevada non-metro. In this region, physical therapists earn an annual mean wage of $113,180. Other high-paying non-metro areas for physical therapists include central Louisiana, Connecticut non-metro, and Northern New Mexico. All these areas offer annual mean wages above $107,000.
Job Outlook for Physical Therapists
Physical therapists also enjoy an exceptionally positive job outlook, with the BLS predicting a 21% increase in job opportunities over the next decade. The overall employment growth for physical therapists is significantly faster than the average projected growth for all occupations. According to BLS, the average employment growth for all occupations is eight percent. The average growth in healthcare diagnosing or treating practitioners is 12 percent. On average, according to BLS, 15,600 job openings for physical therapists are projected each year for the next 10 years. These numbers are indicative of a highly favorable job outlook.
What’s causing the demand for PTs? The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that demand for physical therapy will spike due to the growing number of aging baby boomers, most of whom are staying active and healthy later in life. However, a growing and aging population does experience health problems, despite their efforts to remain fit and healthy. Baby boomers are more likely than younger age groups are to experience heart attacks, strokes, and mobility-related injuries that require rehabilitation and physical therapy.
In addition, more physical therapists will be needed due to the increasing number of chronic conditions, such as obesity and diabetes. Both conditions have grown more prevalent today than in recent years, and as a result, more PTs will be needed to help patients maintain mobility.
Also, due to the advances in healthcare and medical technology, outpatient surgery is being used more now than in the past to treat injuries and illnesses. As demand for rehabilitative care increases, the need for physical therapists also increases. PTs will be needed to provide care and help patients recover from surgery.
If you’re considering a career in physical therapy, now is an ideal time to get started on your degree path for becoming a physical therapist.
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