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Nature of the Work
Physical therapy offers very good job opportunities and high pay.
Physical therapists will be among the fastest growing occupations, as growth in the number of individuals with disabilities or limited function increases the demand for physical therapy services.
Physical therapists provide services that help restore function, improve mobility, relieve pain, and prevent or limit permanent physical disabilities of patients suffering from injuries or disease. They restore, maintain, and promote overall fitness and health. Their patients include accident victims and individuals with disabling conditions such as low back pain, arthritis, heart disease, fractures, head injuries, and cerebral palsy.
Therapists examine patients' medical histories, then test and measure their strength, range of motion, balance and coordination, posture, muscle performance, respiration, and motor function. They also determine patients' ability to be independent and reintegrate into the community or workplace after injury or illness. Next, they develop treatment plans describing the treatment strategy, its purpose, and the anticipated outcome. After devising a treatment strategy, physical therapists often delegate specific procedures to physical therapist assistants and aides. (Physical therapist assistants and aides are discussed elsewhere in the Handbook.) Therapists are increasingly taking on supervisory roles.
Treatment often includes exercise for patients who have been immobilized and lack flexibility, strength, or endurance. They encourage patients to use their own muscles to further increase flexibility and range of motion before finally advancing to other exercises improving strength, balance, coordination, and endurance. Their goal is to improve how an individual functions at work and home.
Physical therapists also use electrical stimulation, hot packs or cold compresses, and ultrasound to relieve pain and reduce swelling. They may use traction or deep-tissue massage to relieve pain. Therapists also teach patients to use assistive and adaptive devices such as crutches, prostheses, and wheelchairs. They may show patients exercises to do at home to expedite their recovery.
As treatment continues, physical therapists document progress, conduct periodic examinations, and modify treatments when necessary. Such documentation is used to track the patient's progress, and identify areas requiring more or less attention.
Physical therapists often consult and practice with a variety of other professionals, such as physicians, dentists, nurses, educators, social workers, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, and audiologists.
Some physical therapists treat a wide range of ailments; others specialize in areas such as pediatrics, geriatrics, orthopedics, sports medicine, neurology, and cardiopulmonary physical therapy.
Physical therapists practice in hospitals, clinics, and private offices that have specially equipped facilities or they treat patients in hospital rooms, homes, or schools.
Most physical therapists work a 40-hour week, which may include some evenings and weekends. The job can be physically demanding because therapists often have to stoop, kneel, crouch, lift, and stand for long periods of time. In addition, physical therapists move heavy equipment and lift patients or help them turn, stand, or walk.
Physical therapists held about 115,000 jobs in 1996; about 1 in 4 worked part time. Almost two-thirds were employed in either hospitals or offices of physical therapists. Other jobs were in home health agencies, outpatient rehabilitation centers, offices and clinics of physicians, and nursing homes. Some physical therapists are self-employed in private practices. They may provide services to individual patients or contract to provide services in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, home health agencies, adult daycare programs, and schools. They may be in solo practice or be part of a consulting group. Physical therapists also teach in academic institutions and conduct research.
All States require physical therapists to pass a licensure exam after graduating from an accredited physical therapist educational program before they can practice.
According to the American Physical Therapy Association , there were 173 accredited physical therapist programs as of July, 1997. Of the accredited programs, 46 offered bachelor's degrees and 116 were master's degree programs. By the year 2001, all accredited physical therapy programs will be at the master's degree level and above. Currently, the bachelor's degree curriculum starts with basic science courses such as biology, chemistry, and physics, and then introduces specialized courses such as biomechanics, neuroanatomy, human growth and development, manifestations of disease, examination techniques, and therapeutic procedures. Besides classroom and laboratory instruction, students receive supervised clinical experience. Individuals who have a 4-year degree in another field and want to be a physical therapist, should enroll in a master's or a doctoral level physical therapist educational program.
Competition for entrance into physical therapist educational programs is very intense, so interested students should attain superior grades in high school and college, especially in science courses. Courses useful when applying to physical therapist educational programs include anatomy, biology, chemistry, social science, mathematics, and physics. Before granting admission, many professional education programs require experience as a volunteer in a physical therapy department of a hospital or clinic.
Physical therapists should have strong interpersonal skills to successfully educate patients about their physical therapy treatments. They should also be compassionate and posses a desire to help patients. Similar traits are also needed to interact with the patient's family.
Physical therapists are expected to continue professional development by participating in continuing education courses and workshops. A number of States require continuing education to maintain licensure.
Anecdotal reports about shortages of physical therapists that existed in recent years are no longer common. The number of physical therapist educational programs has increased and more graduates have moved into the labor force. Nevertheless, job prospects are expected to continue to be very good.
Physical therapists are expected to be among the fastest growing occupations through the year 2006 as the demand for physical therapy services grows. The rapidly growing elderly population is particularly vulnerable to chronic and debilitating conditions that require therapeutic services. Also, the baby-boom generation is entering the prime age for heart attacks and strokes, increasing the demand for cardiac and physical rehabilitation. More young people will need physical therapy as technological advances save the lives of a larger proportion of newborns with severe birth defects. Future medical developments will also permit a higher percentage of trauma victims to survive, creating additional demand for rehabilitative care. Growth may also result from advances in medical technology which permit treatment of more disabling conditions.
Widespread interest in health promotion should also increase demand for physical therapy services. A growing number of employers are using physical therapists to evaluate worksites, develop exercise programs, and teach safe work habits to employees in the hope of reducing injuries.
Employment of physical therapits would grow even faster were it not for continued emphasis on controlling health care costs by limiting the use of therapeutic services in some instances.
In 1996, median weekly earnings of salaried physical therapists who usually work full time were $757. The middle 50 percent earned between $577 and $1,055. The top 10 percent earned at least $1,294 and the bottom 10 percent earned less than $400.
According to the American Physical Therapy Association's survey of physical therapists practicing in hospital settings, the median annual base salary of full-time physical therapists was $48,000 in 1996. The middle 50 percent earned $42,000 and $57,000.
Physical therapists rehabilitate persons with physical disabilities. Others who work in the rehabilitation field include occupational therapists, speech pathologists, audiologists, orthotists, prosthetists, and respiratory therapists.
Additional information on a career as a physical therapist and a list of accredited educational programs in physical therapy are available from:
American Physical Therapy Association, 1111 North Fairfax St., Alexandria, VA 22314-1488. Homepage: http://www.apta.org/
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