A physical therapist, or PT, specializes in diagnosing and treating physical disorders in people who have suffered an injury, had an accident or have a disease that limits their movement and ability to function in their daily lives PTs work along with other healthcare professionals to develop complete treatment plans to restore movement and function, and to prevent loss of mobility in individuals who are at risk of becoming disabled due to disease.
Physical therapy as a career is financially rewarding. Although the education needed to become a physical therapist requires a substantial investment in both time and money, successful PTs can expect to earn more than $100,000 as their work experience increases. Job prospects for physical therapists for the next several years are excellent, particularly in rural areas and in facilities specializing in caring for the elderly.
The salary paid to a physical therapist depends on several factors: the level of education, work setting and years of experience. Although all physical therapists must have at least a master’s degree, those who have obtained a doctorate will earn more money over the course of their career. Physical therapists with a board certified specialty can also expect to earn a higher salary.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median salary for a physical therapist in 2008 was $72,790. The lowest ten percent earned less than $50,350, and the highest ten percent earned more than $104,350. The majority earned in the range between $60,300 and $85,540.*
*According to the BLS, http://www.bls.gov/oco/
Job Description and Outlook
A physical therapist consults with a patient’s primary physician to develop a treatment plan specific to the patient’s injury or disease. To increase a patient’s mobility and quality of life, a physical therapist may recommend and administer massage therapy, exercises, and hot and cold compresses during a treatment session. The PT may use whirlpools, stationary bicycles, and weights to increase mobility and relieve symptoms; the therapist may need to move, lift and assist the patient during the session to perform the treatment properly. If a patient requires special equipment during rehabilitation such as crutches, a wheelchair or a prosthesis, the PT will instruct the patient and his family on how to use and care for these devices.
Although physical therapists most often work in hospitals and clinics, many PTs are hired by sports organizations, both professional and amateur. Athletes at all levels of competition are susceptible to a wide variety of injuries that require significant amounts of rehabilitation time. PTs also design programs to help athletes improve their fitness and endurance.
Demographic changes, improved technology and medical advances all contribute to an increased demand for physical therapists. As the senior citizen population grows with the retirement of the baby boomer generation, chronic ailments associated with advancing age will require treatments and therapies provided by PTs. Advances in medical technology permit more people suffering from debilitating diseases and traumatic injuries to live longer; these people will require treatment from physical therapists for rehabilitation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that job openings for physical therapists will expand by 30% over the next eight years.*
*According to the BLS, http://www.bls.gov/oco/
Training and Education Requirements
Prospective physical therapists must earn a master’s or doctoral degree from an academic program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Physical Therapy Education. A master’s degree takes up to two and a half years of coursework to earn, and the doctorate takes three years. Academic instruction for both degrees includes courses in both natural sciences and behavioral sciences. Students will also receive classroom and clinical instruction in medical disciplines, such as diagnostics, examination testing and techniques, and practice management. The curriculum also includes supervised hands-on clinical work.
To have the best chance to be admitted to a physical therapy program, an undergraduate should focus on studying science, especially biology, anatomy, mathematics, and chemistry. Most admission programs also require candidates to perform volunteer work in a hospital or a clinic in their physical therapy departments.
Every state requires physical therapists to be licensed. Although specific licensing requirements vary by state, most require that physical therapists graduate from an accredited physical therapy program, pass the National Physical Therapy Examination, and pass an examination on state laws and regulations.
Physical therapists may become certified through programs offered by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS). Board certifications are available in eight physical therapy specialties: pediatrics, women’s health, geriatrics, sports, neurology, clinical electrophysiology, orthopedics, and cardiovascular/pulmonary. To be eligible for board certification, an individual must have a valid physical therapy license and provide proof of 2,000 hours of work experience in the specialty area. Once these qualifications have been met, the PT must pass an examination in her chosen specialty. Specialists must re-certify every ten years.
The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) is the main professional association for physical therapists, with a membership of more than 74,000. Members of the APTA receive many benefits, including continuing education, physical therapy research and news publications, and up-to-date information concerning health care reform through the association’s website.
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