Physical therapists are health care professionals whose mission is to improve the overall physical functionality of their patients. This might mean enhancing their muscle strength or functional ability, improving their flexibility, endurance, or mobility, or attempting some combination of these abilities. Physical therapists also work to relieve pain, prevent or reverse degeneration and atrophy of patients’ muscles, and to restore their independence by enhancing their mobility.
Physical therapists often practice in collaboration with other health care professionals. These can include doctors and nurses, social workers and educators, or health care professionals in related disciplines, such as occupational therapists or speech and hearing therapists
According to the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education, physical therapists are required to possess a master’s degree from an accredited physical therapist educational program. The American Physical Therapy Association reports that in 2004 there were 205 accredited physical therapist programs in colleges and universities in the U.S. Of these programs, 94 offered master’s degrees and 111 offered doctoral degrees. All states require a licensure exam before a physical therapist can begin practicing, although specific regulations for licensure vary from state to state.
The initial task of the physical therapist is to assess a wide range of physical parameters in the patient. Among these are the patient’s range of motion, balance and coordination, reflexes and muscle tone, motor function, and functional performance. Based on the results of these tests, the physical therapist evaluates the patient’s individual therapeutic needs then establishes and administers therapy and exercise regimens. The therapist also tracks the regimen, evaluates its effectiveness, and modifies it as required. In every phase of this procedure, the physical therapist educates the patient on the physiology and goals of the exercise.
Some physical therapists act as generalists, treating a wide range of physical difficulties. Others specialize in a specific field of therapy, such as pediatrics, geriatrics, orthopedics, sports medicine, neurology, or cardiopulmonary therapy. A physical therapist can practice and treat patients in a variety of locations, including hospitals, clinics, homes, schools, or private offices equipped with the special equipment and facilities necessary to administer the treatments and perform the exercises.
To be successful, the physical therapist should possess certain vital skills. Excellent powers of observation are essential in order to measure and assess the patient’s needs and progress. Physical attributes such as balance and coordination are helpful when administering therapy. Physical fitness is required, as the therapist must repeatedly stoop, kneel, crouch, and stand for long periods of time to assist the patient in the rehabilitative exercises. Strength is also a valuable asset, as the therapist must occasionally lift or turn patients, or hold and stabilize them to assist them in walking.
Because physical therapy is centered on people, strong communication and social skills are beneficial, in order to communicate with and educate patients and their families about exercises and treatments. Compassion, patience, and a sincere desire to help are also key character traits which the physical therapist should possess.
According to a Background Sheet released by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) in 2006, there are currently more than 150,000 licensed physical therapists in the U.S. Close to 60 percent of these physical therapists worked in hospitals or in facilities that specialize in delivering physical therapy, but the survey indicated that physical therapists are employed in numerous other locations, including home health care services, nursing and outpatient care facilities, physician’s offices, and in colleges and universities as instructors. About a quarter of all physical therapists work part time.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment opportunities for physical therapists are expected to grow “much faster than the average for all occupations” well into the next decade. One central reason is that the baby boomer population is aging, creating more patients who will require an increasing amount of treatment for a variety of chronic and debilitating age-related physical difficulties, such as arthritis and stroke recovery. Opportunities are predicted be excellent in hospitals and in rehabilitation and orthopedic venues.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage of physical therapists in 2004 was $60,180, with a range running from less than $42,010 to a high of more than $88,580. The APTA reports an average annual income among their members who are employed full-time of approximately $68,000, depending on the degree of education, years of experience, geographic location, and practice setting. The APTA also states that physical therapists have the potential to earn more than $100,000 a year.
A 2006 survey of the country’s 50 fastest-growing careers performed by Money magazine and Salary.com lists physical therapist as number 12.