Physical Therapists

Significant Points

  • Although the effects of Federal limits on reimbursement for therapy services will cause keen competition for jobs during the first half of the projection period, employment is expected to increase over the 1998-2008 period.
  • Competition for entrance into physical therapist educational programs is very intense.
  • By 2002, all physical therapist programs seeking accreditation will be required to offer master’s degrees and above.

Nature of the Work [About this section]  Index

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 a treatment strategy, the purpose, and anticipated outcome. Physical therapist assistants, under the direction and supervision of a physical therapist, may be involved in the implementation of the treatment plan. Physical therapist aides perform routine support tasks, as directed by the therapist. (Physical therapist assistants and aides are discussed elsewhere in the Handbook.)

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 also 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.

Working Conditions [About this section]  Index

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.

Employment [About this section]  Index

Physical therapists held about 120,000 jobs in 1998; about 1 in 4 worked part time. The number of jobs is greater than the number of practicing physical therapists because some physical therapists hold two or more jobs. For example, some may have a private practice, but also work part time in another health facility. About 1 in 10 physical therapists held more than one job in 1998.

Over two-thirds of physical therapists 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.

Training, Other Qualifications, & Advancement [About this section]  Index

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 189 accredited physical therapist programs in 1999. Of the accredited programs, 24 offered bachelor’s degrees, 157 offered master’s degrees, and 8 offered doctoral degrees. By 2002, all physical therapist programs seeking accreditation will be required to offer degrees at the master’s degree level and above, in accordance with the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education.

Physical therapist programs start with basic science courses such as biology, chemistry, and physics, and then introduce 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.

Job Outlook [About this section]  Index

Employment of physical therapists is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations through 2008. However, Federal legislation imposing limits on reimbursement for therapy services may continue to adversely affect the job market for physical therapists in the near term. Because of the effects of these provisions, the majority of expected employment growth for physical therapists will occur in the second half of the projection period.

Over the long run, the demand for physical therapists should continue to rise as a result of growth in the number of individuals with disabilities or limited function requiring therapy services. 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 should 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.

Earnings [About this section]  Index

Median annual earnings of physical therapists were $56,600 in 1998. The middle 50 percent earned between $44,460 and $77,810 a year. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $35,700 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $90,870 a year. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest number of physical therapists in 1997 were as follows:

Home health care services $65,600
Nursing and personal care facilities 60,400
Offices of other health care practitioners 56,600
Offices and clinics of medical doctors 55,100
Hospitals 50,100

Related Occupations [About this section]  Index

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.

Sources of Additional Information [About this section]  Index

Disclaimer: Links to other Internet sites are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement.

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. Internet: http://www.apta.org

An industry employing physical therapists that appears in the 2000-01 Career Guide to Industries: Health services

O*NET Codes: 32308 About the O*NET codes

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