Physical therapists take on the difficult task of helping injured and ill patients get better. They typically do this by teaching patients specific movements that can help them manage their pain and improve their flexibility. They may also instruct patients on the use of canes, wheelchairs and other equipment to assist patients with mobility.
A physical therapy career can span all fields of health care and include helping people of all ages who suffer from functional limitations from stroke, injury, amputation and disease processes. While these therapists are not doctors, they are an important part of any rehabilitation and treatment team.
A Day in the Life of a Physical Therapist
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, physical therapists work in multiple settings such as private offices, clinics, hospitals and nursing homes. Some of them also do house calls and work in patients' homes.
Different work settings can mean that the average day of a physical therapist varies dramatically. However, the core functions of their job tend to stay the same. Mostly, they are charged with using their medical and physical expertise to help patients recover from illness or injury. Some of their most common tasks include:
- Reviewing a patient's medical history and notes from doctors, surgeons and other health care workers
- Diagnosing a patient's function and movements to figure out the best ways to help them
- Developing individualized care plans for patients
- Helping patients formulate goals to recover and adjust to any new physical limitations
- Listening to patient concerns
- Using exercises, stretching and other therapies to ease patient pain, increase mobility or help build strength
- Evaluating patient progress, modifying care plans and trying new treatments as needed
- Educating patients and their families on what to expect
A physical therapist who works in a nursing home would likely spend the bulk of their day helping elderly people maintain their flexibility and recover from surgery or injury. A physical therapist who works in a hospital, on the other hand, may work with a variety of patients who suffer from a huge range of illnesses or injuries.
Important Characteristics for Physical Therapists
Physical therapists are typically compassionate by nature and enjoy helping others. They need good interpersonal skills to be able to listen to patients, understand what they are experiencing and be able to help motivate them through treatment.
Other skills physical therapists need include attention to detail and dexterity. Because the job itself can be physical in nature, physical therapists also need stamina to be able to be on their feet all the time and to help lift and move patients when necessary.
Physical therapists often work autonomously, so time management and resourcefulness are valuable skill sets to develop for a physical therapy career as well.
Typical Steps for Becoming a Physical Therapist
Because physical therapists need to know a great deal about medicine and the human body, they spend many years in school. If you are trying to figure out how to become a physical therapist, consider this step-by-step roadmap:
1. Earn a high school diploma. Because of the advanced credentials one needs to begin a physical therapy career, earning a high school diploma is necessary.
2. Earn a bachelor's degree. Most physical therapy schools require you to earn a bachelor's degree before admission. Typically, your bachelor's degree needs to be in a field related to health care such as kinesiology, exercise science or medicine.
3. Pursue a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. Doctor of Physical Therapy programs typically last three years, and you pursue this degree in addition to a bachelor's degree. Occasionally, however, some colleges will admit a freshman into a full DPT program that includes both a bachelor's degree and their DPT degree. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also reports that physical therapists need to do at least 30 hours of clinical work to gain hands-on experience.
4 Complete a clinical residence program. Once students graduate from physical therapist programs, they need to apply to a clinical residency program. Residencies usually last approximately one year, and provide additional hands-on training and experience.
5. Become licensed to work in your state. All states require physical therapists to become licensed to work. Licensing requirements vary significantly by state, however. Some states also require a criminal background check and for new therapists to complete continuing education to stay abreast of changes in the field.
- Doctor of Physical Therapy, UMass Lowell, https://www.uml.edu/Health-Sciences/PT/Graduate/, accessed November 2017
- Physical Therapist Education Overview, American Physical Therapy Association, http://www.apta.org/PTEducation/Overview/, accessed November 2017
- Physical Therapists, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-24 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapists.htm