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How to Become a Physical Therapist: Key Steps to Take

Have you thought physical therapy might interest you? Do you have questions about how to become a physical therapist?

This article will describe job outlooks, salaries, and education and licensing requirements. You may also be surprised to find out where physical therapists work. Check out this comprehensive guide to see if this is your dream career.

Overview of the Physical Therapist Role

A physical therapist works with patients who have experienced an injury or illness. They assess, plan, and organize individual care plans. Treatment goals include restoring function, increasing mobility, reducing pain, and minimizing disabilities.

Physical therapists work with clients of all ages. As you read, you will see that the opportunities vary greatly.

High Market Demand for Physical Therapists

Today, physical therapy is listed among healthcare careers in high demand. The flexibility of job locations and specialties contributes to this profession's appeal. Since they treat illness and injury, patient care plans often include physical therapy.

Projected Job Growth in the Physical Therapy Profession

The physical therapy profession has a bright projected future. Its popularity continues to increase.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Occupational Outlook Handbook rates the anticipated growth of occupations. The physical therapy growth expectation between 2016 and 2026 is 28%. Experts consider this much faster than the average for all occupations.

The BLS estimated the average annual wage in 2018 for physical therapists at about $88,880. Salaries vary depending on the state where you work and your specialty.

Work Settings

So where can you find physical therapists at work? You can probably guess some of these first locations. This list shows the percent of therapists in the industry who work in these facilities:

  • Health practitioner’s offices: 8.92%
  • Home health care: 1.89%
  • General medical and surgical hospitals: 1.00%
  • Skilled nursing facilities: 0.87%
  • Physician’s offices: 0.47%

Some less common work settings include the following:

  • Outpatient care facilities: 0.53%
  • Child daycare service centers: 0.04%
  • Spectator sporting events: 0.03%

Choosing this career path offers many varied opportunities. As you work in the field, you may decide to try different specialty areas along the way. You won’t be locked into one specific job description or setting.

Why Is Physical Therapy a Good Choice for a Balanced Life?

Physical therapy offers professional rewards while maintaining an active personal life. Depending on your work setting, you may work set shifts or specified hours. Many physical therapists work by appointment allowing some flexibility during the workday.

Others choose to work as freelance contractors. You may even choose to start your own specialty practice. This offers a great combination of control, flexibility, and stability.

How to Become a Physical Therapist

The physical therapist education requires a high level of commitment. Candidates must first complete a bachelor’s degree in a health-related field. This degree must significantly focus on anatomy, physiology, biology, chemistry, and physics.

The bachelor’s degree is followed by the completion of the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program. The Physical Therapists Central Application Service manages the application process for DPT programs.

The DPT program takes an extra three years of study. This includes a supervised clinical internship in acute and/or orthopedic care. You will also study the following subjects:

  • Applied physical therapy
  • Functional anatomy
  • Complex conditions
  • Life span development
  • Pharmacotherapy

In 2019, the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education released a report. According to this study, 96.4% of DPT students graduated from their programs. This demonstrates the quality of DPT programs in the United States.

Licensing Requirements for Physical Therapists

Before practicing as a physical therapist, all states mandate that you complete licensure. You must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination. The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy administers this exam.

Some states also require physical therapists to take a practical test. The purpose of this test is to test your knowledge of the state's laws and ethics.

State licenses may only allow you to practice in that state. Some states have reciprocity agreements with other states. This means that you can transfer your license or practice in the states with this agreement.

The national exams allow physical therapists to practice in most states. It’s vital to confirm your licensure status when considering working in a new state. You must also see if you need to take state-specific law and ethics exams.

Completing Specialty Certifications

Some physical therapists choose to specialize. To qualify for most specializations, you must complete one of 2 requirements.

The first is to document 2,000 hours of direct patient care. Or you can complete an American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) approved residency program.

You may also need certification from the American Heart Association. Some specializations require paramedic or emergency medical technician licensure. Others ask for documentation of “sufficient” supervised work with patients in the specialty.

Once you've completed certification, you'll be registered in the Directory of Certified Specialists. This national database lists all certified physical therapists by the organization.

This certification must be renewed every 10 years. You may either retake the examination or provide a portfolio review of practice. Another option is to complete an APTA-accredited residency program.

There are 8 specialty certifications offered by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties.

1. Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Certified Specialist (CCS)

The CCS works with patients to optimize their cardiovascular and/or pulmonary health. They develop activity and strength plans for individual clients. They often serve as part of cardiac rehab programs.

2. Clinical Electrophysiologic Certified Specialist (ECS)

ECS therapists focus on electrotherapy and other therapeutic technologies for treating patients. These specialists use electromyography to evaluate and treat neuromuscular problems.

The ECS analyzes the test results to look for weak muscles and/or neurologic deficits. A treatment plan is then created which may include electrotherapy. This technique sends electrical currents which can speed wound healing.

Electrotherapy also treats injuries or illnesses due to noise, altitude, vibration, or radiation. Problems caused by extreme temperatures, pressure, or exercise also respond to this modality.

Current research shows that electrotherapy treatment by a certified physical therapist helps to:

  • Management of pain
  • Improving joint range of motion
  • Tissue healing
  • Increasing blood circulation
  • Relaxation for muscle spasms

Does this sound like a specialty that would interest you?

3. Geriatric Certified Specialist (GCS)

Our geriatric population is increasing compared to other age groups. The GCS plays a key role in improving the health, mobility, and independence of older patients.

They treat issues including wound management, osteoporosis, frailty, and osteoporosis. The GCS role also includes working with patients who have orthopedic and neurologic problems.

4. Neurologic Certified Specialist (NCS)

The NCS physical therapist focuses specifically on patients with a neurologic deficit. This includes peripheral nerve injuries and all levels of brain and spinal cord damage. Some of the most common diagnoses treated by an NCS include:

  • Amputations
  • Balance disorders
  • Brain injuries
  • Dystonia
  • Guillain-Barre syndrome
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Stroke
  • Tumors in the brain/and or spinal cord
  • Vestibular disorders

These specialists must study and have extensive experience with neurologic disorders.

5. Orthopedic Certified Specialist (OCS)

OCS physical therapists focus on treating musculoskeletal and orthopedic problems. Examples include bone fractures and skeletal system abnormalities due to injury or disease.

Physical therapists must demonstrate expert knowledge of these disease states and treatments.

6. Pediatric Certified Specialist (PCS)

PCS physical therapists work with children and their families. The first step is to determine the child’s physical needs and the family’s concerns. The PCS will evaluate the child’s daily activities and routines.

This evaluation allows the PCS to identify barriers to daily living. Using this information, the PCS creates a plan of care. This may include interventions focused on mobility, sensory, and neuromotor development.

The PCS may prescribe and teach the child to use assistive technology to increase independence. Exercises and other interventions can assist with increasing strength, endurance, posture, and balance. They may also work to improve the child’s cardiopulmonary status and oral motor skills.

7. Sports Certified Specialist (SCS)

SCS physical therapists work with amateur and professional athletes. They serve as experts in managing injuries and developing rehabilitation programs.

If you love sports, this can offer a great way to blend your passions.

8. Women’s Health Certified Specialist (WCS)

One of the newer specializations for physical therapists is the WCS specialization. This focuses on conditions that affect women throughout the lifespan.

This can include issues related to pregnancy, postpartum, and menopause. WCSs also offer treatment solutions for pelvic pain and incontinence.

Continuing Education Requirements to Maintain Licensure

Many states mandate that physical therapists complete continuing education (CE) courses for re-licensure. You can receive CE credit via courses from universities, colleges, or professional conferences.

One contact hour equals 50 to 60 minutes of participation in a class or activity. One continuing education unit (CEU) equals 10 contact hours.

It’s important to know how many CEUs your state requires. Also, make sure that you understand how your state interprets CE contact hours. When registering for a course, make sure it’s approved for physical therapy CEUs.

What to Look for in a Physical Therapy School

Finding the right school can impact your learning experience. The following are some guidelines for choosing a physical therapy school.

Student Environment

Many students benefit from a close-knit educational environment. Explore the student to faculty ratio in classes. Ask about their DPT student class numbers and the number of faculty members.

How accessible are the faculty to the students? You want to have more support than just listening to lectures.

Program Accreditation

It’s important to choose an accredited program. This means that it meets national standards.

Completing accreditation is a voluntary process. It shows that the school values high standards. The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education is the only accrediting authority.

What Does the Learning Environment Include?

You may consider talking to students enrolled in the program. Find out how the school structures the curriculum.

Does it include a mix of lectures, labs, practical application, and hands-on problem-solving? Is there a supervised clinical component and how long is that experience?

What Is the Program’s Graduation and Licensure Rate?

Selecting a program with a high graduation rate increases your chance of success. Compare various school’s graduation rates to national averages.

Also, ask about their percent of first-time pass rates for the licensing exam. You don’t want to spend all that money and not achieve your goals.

Delve Into Specific Clinical Opportunities

Ask specific questions about clinical practicums. How many hours will you spend in supervised clinical rotations? What clinical settings are included?

Find out about the patient diagnoses you will work with. Ask if you have opportunities to choose to work with specific patient populations.

Where to Look for Jobs

Many students find their first jobs through clinical rotation opportunities. Others may choose to look for employment in a different location or specialty area. There are many national, niche or specialty, and classified job boards.

Each one offers different advantages and disadvantages. The niche job boards are gaining popularity. These boards include blogs that address issues about the job search.

These niche job boards also target job opportunities for your specific profession. This means you will only get news and employment information for physical therapists. Other sites may overwhelm you with irrelevant information.

Filters allow you to search by keywords to provide relevant information. You can limit the search by:

  • Your education, licensure, and certifications
  • Length of time and experience
  • Industry or specialty you’re interested in
  • Position titles you’re looking for
  • Geographic location where you would like to work
  • Salary requirements
  • Type of contract you would like, including work schedule

Narrowing the search can help you find the position you’re looking for. You can also register on job boards so that potential employers can find you. You will then receive job alerts as new positions open.