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Physical therapy (PT) is a health care discipline concerned with mobility and other aspects of physical functioning. Professionals in the field are trained to help patients maximize movement and performance, providing care and services that develop strength, range of motion, and flexibility. Various activities used during PT target specific mobility problems, restoring and improving movement and contributing to better overall physical fitness.
Rehabilitative PT techniques have been used for centuries, but the modern profession was born in the wake of World War I, serving returning soldiers. Physical therapists practice under a variety of designations worldwide. Despite having different names, each draws from the same expertise to engineer positive patient outcomes. Outside the U.S., for instance, physiotherapists and kinesiologists furnish services similar to those provided by physical therapists.
Becoming a physical therapist typically calls for bachelor’s degree level education, followed by completion of an accredited Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program. Before working in the field, graduates must pass a national certification exam. State licensure is also required.
Techniques in Practice
Physical therapy is recommended for a wide range of conditions. Patients recovering from surgery such as knee replacement benefit from physical therapy, as well as those rehabilitating an injury. Long-term conditions, such as cerebral palsy and other illnesses involving musculoskeletal irregularities are also treated by physical therapists, employing individualized treatment plans to improve physical functioning and quality of life.
To improve outcomes for those facing long-term limitations, physical therapists often focus on helping patients perform day-to-day tasks. By treating mobility obstacles, for example, PT can improve a patient’s ability to walk, sit upright, and maintain proper posture during the course of daily activities. Treatment plans also furnish tools for completing household tasks and personal care, leading to greater independence and faster recovery times.
Physical therapists commonly treat these conditions, for example:
- Back pain
- Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
- Traumatic Brain Injury
- Hand and foot injuries
- Sports injuries
Becoming a PT Professional
To practice in the United States, you must first complete an accredited course of study, earning a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) is the single accrediting body for educational programs providing degrees in the field. CAPTE is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as the organization responsible for ensuring high educational standards within programs and institutions offering PT training. Although other graduate-level options were once available, Master of Physical Therapy and Master of Science in Physical Therapy degrees are no longer offered in U.S. schools.
In addition to the DPT degree requirement; practitioners must also meet state licensure obligations before being authorized to practice.
Following a standardized model, states maintain their own eligibility requirements for physical therapy licensure. The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT) is the organization responsible for coordinating state-administered PT examinations. The group is dedicated to protecting public health safety and promoting consistent and competent physical therapy practice across the U.S. To that end, FSBPT is the leading agency ensuring reliability and validity of state PT licensing examinations. The organization’s six areas of focus also encompass activities supporting education, states’ rights and responsibilities, leadership, and FSBPT membership.
Completing the state-administered National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) is an essential milestone on the road to practicing in the U.S. The exam plays two vital roles in PT career development. NPTE:
- ensures that physical therapists have the requisite knowledge and expertise before being licensed to practice within the United States
- helps regulatory agencies evaluate candidates and promotes standards consistent across jurisdictions
In addition to completing the NPTE at a satisfactory level, passing a separate jurisprudence exam is commonly required by individual state licensing authorities. The state-specific tests highlight legal standards and regulations governing the physical therapy profession in each locale.
What is a Physical Therapy Assistant (PTA)?
The only practitioners authorized to provide PT services in the U.S. are Doctors of Physical Therapy and Physical Therapy Assistants, working under their supervision. Much like a DPT, a PTA must complete designated coursework and pass an examination before going to work.
PTA programs are accredited by CAPTE, extending various degrees for candidates entering the field. An Associate’s in Applied Science or an Occupational Associate’s Degree in Physical Therapy Assistant, for example, may be earned to satisfy the job’s educational requirement.
Daily PTA responsibilities vary from location to location and practice to practice, depending upon state regulations governing physical therapy and the needs of each doctor. In most settings, a PTA works closely with the supervising doctor, assisting with the recommended treatment plan. An assistant may participate in the following interventions, among others:
- Rehabilitative exercise
- Patient education
Educational Path to Certification
DPT programs are most often structured to follow a three-year course of study, covering the PT curriculum. In many cases, candidates first acquire a bachelor’s degree, before gaining acceptance to an accredited physical therapy program. There are alternatives tracks available, however, with some institutions putting forth comprehensive six-year programs. In this format a student attends a single institution, first completing three years of preliminary coursework, and then moving-on to finish a three-year DPT program.
Whether a bachelor’s degree is obtained from another institution or the equivalent is earned in a 3+3 DPT study format, preliminary course work is heavy on science. To be expected, DPT programs include in-depth exposure to these and other related subjects:
- Cardiovascular health
A majority of a physical therapist’s education occurs in the classroom and laboratory, comprising approximately 80% of the standard curriculum. The other 20% takes place in hands-on clinical settings. Depending upon a student’s desired specialty and school facilities, clinical requirements are met working in campus health facilities and/or private practice settings. Each student also completes an intensive final clinical experience, carrying-on for months.
Accredited Programs Graduate Competent Professionals
If you want to become a physical therapist, you’ll need credentials from a CAPTE accredited school. The designation not only keeps educational standards high at your chosen institution, but CAPTE oversight also ensures the field is staffed with competent practitioners. Accredited programs include the following representative sample of schools offering DPT education.
The University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitative Sciences maintains an accredited DPT program. Pitt’s DPT education is highly-ranked, boasting a comprehensive didactic and clinical curriculum. Before a degree is conferred, a candidate must complete more than 90 weeks of clinical internships, practicing hands-on. Graduates consistently have high pass rates on required exams. The University is also among the leading research facilities in the area of physical therapy, garnering NIH funding. As a result, the school’s faculty is comprised of forward-thinking educators, at the top of their field. Several merit-based scholarship assist stand-out performers in the Pitt DPT program.
The School of Allied Health Professions at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) offers a highly-respected Doctor of Physical Therapy program in Richmond, VA. Enrolling in the CAPTE accredited DPT program gives degree candidates access to state-of-the-art facilities and research. The VCU curriculum is rich with practical coursework, teaching each student to evaluate and manage patients in a variety of settings. Completing the three-year program leads to a DPT degree, but the school also offers advanced doctoral education in PT specialties such as Rehabilitation and Movement Science, Physiology/Physical Therapy, Health Related Sciences. These Ph.D. tracks prepare professionals to teach and move PT research forward.
VCU students pursuing a sports specialty are invited to apply to the school’s Sports Residency Program. The 13-month learning opportunity engages participants with the VCU athletic department, furnishing hands-on experience in sports medicine. Sports specialty students are also put to work in the Virginia Commonwealth University Health System, gaining further exposure to the role played by PT in a Level 1 Trauma Center.
For the third year running, students completing the DPT course of study at Concordia University have maintained a 100% pass rate on the National Physical Therapy Exam. The Wisconsin college has been CAPTE accredited for more than ten years, offering a respected path to practicing PT. Mandatory coursework consists of 125 credit hours, featuring interactions with actual clients, during each semester. The low student/instructor ratio enables personalized learning. And degree candidates enjoy access to state-of-the-art facilities – including a human anatomy laboratory.
According to Concordia admissions data, students entering the DPT program typically bring GPAs above 3.5. The three-year program is a full-time commitment, representing 6 semesters, three winter terms, and three rounds of summer schooling. Emphasizing competence, ethics, and critical thinking, the DPT program graduates practitioners with the skills and knowledge required for an entry level PT role, teaching them to:
- Embody professionalism in all areas of PT practice
- Embrace service to faith, community, and the physical therapy profession
- Effectively respond to changes within an evolving health care system
An accelerated learning option is available for DPT students enrolling as freshmen and completing their science prerequisites at Concordia. The fast track can shave as much as one year from the program’s standard completion time.
West Virginia University (WVU) School of Medicine has graduated more than 1000 physical therapy students over the course of the past 40 years. The school’s accredited course of study is a three-year, post-baccalaureate program. Candidates are invited to apply using the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS). Completing the PTCAS application process is the first step toward a physical therapy career, enabling PT candidates to apply to multiple learning institutions, using a single set of materials.
The WVU curriculum includes four phases of supervised clinical education, as well as two intensive experiences designed to bridge the void between education and practice. The school’s course of study is arranged progressively, enabling students to practice in clinical settings as their classroom knowledge sets-in.
Students at the University Of Utah College Of Health can choose from programs such as Athletic Trainer, Master of Science in Sports Medicine, Rehabilitation Science – and Doctor of Physical Therapy. Educating PT professionals for nearly 50 years, the University boasts a 99% long-term first-time pass rate among program candidates sitting for the national exam. As part of the school’s efforts to recruit top-level PT talent, the department holds weekly information sessions for prospective students needing answers.
One of the oldest U.S. PT programs, launched in 1969, Utah’s DPT program is accredited by CAPTE. The curriculum reflects Utah’s position that effective physical therapy is a marriage of science and compassionate care. Program coursework emphasizes this core tenet, instilling deep understanding of human anatomy as well as the importance of an individualized treatment approach.
Beyond its DPT program, the University also extends advanced learning opportunities to qualified candidates. Utah’s Neurological Physical Therapy Residency Program, for instance, invites students to expand their clinical work with neurologically impaired patients. The experience prepares participants to sit for the Neurologic Physical Therapy Specialist Certification Examination.
Many physical therapists work in private practices, treating patients in outpatient clinics and professional medical offices. Additional employment opportunities for physical therapists and their assistants are also found in these and other health care settings:
- Hospitals – Illness, surgery and trauma call for PT services in hospitals, where therapists assist patient rehabilitation. Intensive attention (hours daily) is provided in some cases, to assist recovery.
- Schools – PT services can be beneficial to students at all levels of education.
- Occupational Settings – Primarily focused on getting injured workers back on the job and preventing workplace injury, physical therapy can boost productivity and preserve employee health.
- Extended Care environments – Skilled nursing facilities call-upon physical therapists to care for and rehabilitate elderly patients.
- Sports Training Facilities – Assisting with injury prevention and rehabilitation, PT professionals are vital partners to sports teams and athletes participating at all levels.
- Private Homes – In-home physical therapy helps elderly patients with mobility concerns, but the profession also works with people of all ages, battling chronic conditions.
- Hospice – PT reinforces palliative care, helping patients maintain physical functioning in the final stages of life.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 2015 median annual pay above $84,000 for physical therapists. Those working in home healthcare settings and nursing care facilities earned median compensation above $90,000 annually. And the top ten-percent of PT wage earners each drew salaries above $119,000 a year in 2015.
Like many medical and complementary health care fields, demand for physical therapy is expected to grow in coming years. According to BLS, the industry is poised to expand by 34% between the years 2014 and 2024. The job outlook for credentialed PT professionals is particularly robust, far exceeding the national average encompassing all professions. An aging Baby Boomer generation is partially responsible for the spike in demand, as well as medical advances enabling people to remain active later in life. Increased access to health care and expanding use of outpatient surgical procedures also contributes to growing demand for PT intervention.
Professional Organizations and Industry Advocacy
The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) is a membership organization representing physical therapists, physical therapy assistants, and students pursuing credentials in the field. More than 95,000 strong, the group is dedicated to advancing the field and protecting public health with high PT standards. Involved in education and research, APTA works to expand public awareness and understanding about the important role physical therapy plays in modern health care. This vital industry association maintains a vision statement dedicated to the following concerns:
APTA assists members in several key areas. Career development resources, for instance, help PT professionals move their careers forward. And advocacy for fair compensation is a core APTA mission. The group keeps its membership informed about regulatory changes and other industry concerns, as well as furnishing insight about evolving best-practices. In addition to the benefits of general advocacy (including lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C.), members enjoy networking opportunities with other PT professionals and money-saving members-only incentives reserved for APTA professionals.
The World Confederation for Physical Therapy (WCPT) provides an international voice for the field of physical therapy, aligning with more than 100 member organizations to represent 350,000 PT professionals worldwide. The APTA is a member organization representing practitioners in the U.S. In addition to extending member services, WCPT focuses on influencing policy and keeping its membership informed about developments in the field of physical therapy. The group also plays a key role establishing guidelines and standards of practice embraced internationally.
The Foundation for Physical Therapy serves a vital role funding research to optimize movement and health. In particular, the organization strives to publicize research that establishes the scientific basis for treatment. In order to transform public health, the Foundation focuses on the importance of mobility, actively enabling the next generation of researchers. Since 1979, the group has awarded more than $17 million in support of PT research, funding almost 600 researchers’ efforts in the field. The group has leverage millions more producing evidence showing the benefits of physical therapy.
When considering a rewarding career in physical therapy, your best path to professional practice depends upon your educational background and location. If you have not yet obtained a bachelor’s degree, enrolling in a comprehensive program can save time and money, enabling you to practice sooner. Accelerated study tracks can also speed-up the education process, under some circumstances.
As you weigh the benefits of earning DPT or PTA credentials, a vibrant job outlook and above-average compensation furnish strong incentives to apply today.