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Becoming A Physical Therapist May Be Demanding But The Job Is 'Guaranteed'

By Abigail Rome
October 21, 2009

If you're like me, you've been hearing more and more people talking about their physical therapist (PT). Yes, I'm getting older and the people I associate with are likely to be baby boomers with aging, aching bodies. But even younger folks are using PTs now more than ever. While members of the X and Y generations might go to PTs for obvious reasons - to help improve mobility and alleviate aches and pains resulting from accidents and sports injuries - there are many other areas where PT is used. It is now applied in a variety of health specialties, including geriatrics, cardiopulmonary rehabilitation, neurology, orthopedics and pediatrics.

As a result, the need for physical therapists, as well as PT assistants and aides, is increasing dramatically. Reasons include the following: baby boomers are aging and getting creaky; there has been an increase in the number of people with diabetes and obesity, and who benefit from PT; injured veterans returning from overseas service often require PT; and there are more chronic and disabling conditions which are treatable with physical therapy.

The burgeoning need for PT has resulted in an insufficient supply of therapists. Business Week cites the American Physical Therapy Association's research indicating that 13 to 18% of PT positions in the U.S. are currently unfilled. Hopefully, however, this shortage is not likely to endure indefinitely. The Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2008-2009 Occupational Outlook Handbook lists physical therapy as one of the top 30 of fastest-growing occupations.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment will increase 27% for physical therapists and 32.4% for physical therapy assistants between 2006 and 2016. (Over the past decade the number of physical therapists increased a whopping 66%.) Business Week also reports that in a study examining occupations in highest demand in 40 metropolitan areas, physical therapist ranked among the top 3 in 29 metro areas.

This is good news for job seekers. However, it's not that easy. Because a physical therapist nowadays must not only treat patients, but also be able to assess and diagnose them, educational and training requirements have increased. A decade ago a bachelors degree and licensing were all that were required. Now full-fledged physical therapists must acquire a graduate degree - either a master's degree or a clinical doctorate - requiring 3 or 4 years of post-graduate education. This long haul is one of the reasons for the shortage of PT professionals.

PT assistants can get away with an associate's degree and licensure, but they must work under the supervision of a physical therapist. They don't do the evaluations or develop the treatment plans, and are not in charge of the patient. However, the need for PT assistants is growing even faster than for PTs because they can provide many treatments and are less expensive to patients and health care providers. Their salary, which is about 35% less than a professional physical therapist, reflects the savings.

In NW Jobs, a website associated with the Seattle Times, Laura Robinson, program manager for the physical therapy curriculum at the University of Washington, explains why qualification requirements for professional PTs have increased where she lives. "It is primarily to address the independent practice laws that we have in this state. More and more, physical therapists are a gateway into the system. By that I mean that a physical therapist can evaluate and treat someone that self-refers or someone that just walks into their clinic without a doctor's referral. So the knowledge base that a physical therapist needs these days has expanded considerably."

Such direct access does not yet exist in most of the country, but the physical therapist community is working hard to allow its implementation in all areas and practice settings. For instance, APTA has lobbied Congress to include provisions in the national health care reform act to allow seniors and people with disabilities who live in rural "primary care health professional shortage areas" anywhere in the U.S. to access the services of a physical therapist - whether or not the individual is under the care of, or referred by, a physician. According to the APTA blog site, Moving Forward, in late September the Senate Finance Committee unanimously passed an amendment that would authorize a program to research the benefits of providing direct access.

The passage of direct access provisions will be especially useful for career seekers, as well as patients, living in rural areas because, according to an article in Forbes.com , the need for physical therapists is greatest in less populated areas. "It's so different from most health care shortages, because physical therapy is performed close to home," says Dwight Cooper, chief executive officer of PPR Healthcare Staffing. "Hospital services are more centered in urban areas."

Another place where physical therapists are in high demand is nursing homes. "As the population ages, people get more chronic conditions for which physical therapists are key for keeping functioning," says Julie Keysor, associate professor of physical therapy at Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at Boston University, and quoted in Business Week. And, she adds, "That doesn't go away with the recession."

So, it looks like there's a grand future for PTs, if you can manage to get yourself into a program - not an easy feat. The APTA reports that the average class size in accredited physical therapy programs is 39, while the number of applicants is approximately 144 students per program. And, Forbes.com , reports that at the PT program at Nova Southeastern University, in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, there are more than 500 applicants for about 30 to 50 slots. In part, this is because Nova offers part-time attendance and because, according to Debra Stern, associate professor of physical therapy, "It's a guaranteed job."

Once you're in - as a licensed PT or PT assistant - the profession has its perks, including flexible hours, an opportunity to interact with many types of people, tangible and visible rewards when patients improve, added incentive to be active and in good physical shape to serve as a role model to clients, and even the chance to play games at work.

According to USA Today , physical therapy patients are using Nintendo's Wii video games in rehab therapy. The games require body movements similar to traditional therapy exercises, and are helpful for patients with strokes, broken bones, surgery and combat injuries. James Osborn, who oversees rehabilitation services at Herrin Hospital in southern Illinois, says, "When people can refocus their attention from the tediousness of the physical task, often times they do much better." Having to play golf or tennis on the job sounds pretty good to me.

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