How to Become a Physical Therapist
Physical therapists are trained to diagnose and treat patients of all ages who have injuries, disabilities or health conditions that affect their movement.
They also work with healthy people who want to reduce their chance of gaining physical problems in the future and increase their overall health.
Physical therapists can work from a variety of locations. Some work within hospitals, helping post-operative patients to regain movement, while others will work in schools, sports facilities, workplaces and nursing homes.
Physical therapists can also work independently, which can mean visiting patients in their own homes or at their place of work.
In recent years, there has been an increased demand for qualified and licensed physical therapists. This trend is likely to continue.
The exact amount that a physical therapist earns can vary depending on their experience.
It can also vary from state to state, and depends on the demand in the area where the person practices.
In the US, the average wage for a physical therapist is $90,000 per year.
For most people, the starting wage for a physical therapist is approximately 120,000 per year.
How long it takes to become a physical therapist will vary depending on your current level of education and the course that you choose.
To become a physical therapist, you will need to hold a bachelor’s degree.
If you already have this, a recognized physical therapist course at college would usually take around three years.
Without a bachelor’s degree, it will likely take around seven years to complete the educational and training requirements needed to register and practice as a physical therapist.
Depending on your current level of education, the exact process for becoming a physical therapist is not always the same.
You may also find that the requirements vary from state to state, so be sure to check the exact requirements for the state you are planning on practicing in.
To become a physical therapist, you are required to hold a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree.
For most people, this will mean first completing a bachelor’s degree before applying for a physical therapy degree.
Some courses may require that this is in a relevant field such as healthcare or fitness. However, some courses allow students to join a program as soon as they finish high school.
These courses will require students to complete a designated undergraduate program and may require a specific GPA.
Physical therapists are required to have completed a recognized Doctor of Physical Therapy program before they can become licensed.
This needs to be from a Commission of Physical Therapy Education-accredited program. Most of these programs last for three years and combine both classroom and clinical education.
Typically, students will spend 80% of their time learning subjects in a classroom setting such as:
The remaining 20% of the time will be spent gaining clinical experience.
Most Doctor of Physical Therapy programs require students to apply through the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS).
Once individuals have completed their bachelor’s degree and Doctor of Physical Therapy program, they will be required to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) to practice.
To be eligible for the NPTE, you must submit an online registration and examination fee.
You also need to ensure that the licensing authority in your area approves you.
If you do not pass your NPTE on the first attempt, you will be able to retake it at another time.
Students have six attempts at each examination level, although they cannot take the test more than three times consecutively.
If you fail the test three times consecutively, you will need to leave a gap before attempting the test again.
To train in a specialized area of physical therapy, you might need to complete a residency. This can then be followed by a fellowship.
This is designed to increase a physical therapist's knowledge and experience in a specified area. It also means that you can gain further mentoring and clinical supervision while you learn.
Residencies and fellowships will typically last for one year each.
Most physical therapists will find that a condition of their licensing is an agreement to continue education throughout their career.
This ensures that individuals are up to date with the latest techniques and physical therapies available.
It also means that they are aware of any changes in ethical or conduct practices.
After completing a fellowship and gaining experience in the workplace, it is possible to become licensed in a specialized area of physical therapy.
This involves registering with the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS).
Some specialties to consider are:
- Women's health
As well as the technical skills and knowledge required to practice as a physical therapist, there are a number of other useful skills.
For many people, physical therapy is not a short-term fix. It is a series of steps, both forward and backward.
Each patient is different, and everyone will recover from an injury or situation in a slightly different way.
For this reason, it is important to be patient and understand that sometimes treatment will take longer than initially anticipated.
There may be situations where you need to work with other agencies to provide your patients with the care they need.
The ability to identify which agencies are required and collaborate effectively can help your patient to make progress more quickly.
You can also reassure patients that they will be looked after at every step of their journey.
You will be dealing with a wide variety of patients, some of whom will have very complex needs and may feel vulnerable.
It is important to be able to show compassion towards them. This will help to put them at ease and develop feelings of trust.
It is vital to have good communication skills when working as a physical therapist.
You will be dealing with both patients and outside agencies. You will need to understand how to communicate clearly and in a way that is easy to understand.
The ability to communicate well can mean the difference between your patient making progress or not getting better.
Without the ability to communicate effectively, your patients may be confused and unable to fully understand what it is that you are asking them to do, especially when it comes to exercises that they will need to do between sessions or aftercare plans.
Being a physical therapist can be very physically demanding at times.
You may have patients who need to be maneuvered on and off of pieces of equipment or who need help to do the prescribed exercises.
Having stamina and strength will make the physical aspects of the job more manageable.
Sometimes physical therapists will need to make use of specialized equipment as part of a patient's treatment program.
It is important to fully understand how to use this safely and effectively to optimize potential results.
Sometimes your patients will feel like they’re not making any progress. They may develop negative feelings about their physical-therapy journey.
As their therapist, having a positive outlook can encourage them to keep going, even though they may not be able to see the results straight away.
A large part of treating patients involves being able to observe them.
This will allow you to notice any changes which need to be made to a treatment plan.
It can also allow you to see improvements, even if your patients cannot see them.
Time management is a useful skill for anyone, no matter what career they choose.
It is especially important for physical therapists.
While working as a physical therapist, you will need to schedule appointments for patients, allow time for paperwork and potentially travel to and from various locations to fulfill appointments.
Being able to manage your time effectively can help you to carry out your job with minimal stress.
For most patients, a visit to a physical therapist will not be a one-time thing. They will need a plan of treatment including several follow-up appointments.
Understanding how to put a treatment plan together and being able to set achievable goals at every stage of a patient's journey can help both the physical therapist and the patient to understand the short-, medium- and long-term goals surrounding their treatment.
Demand for physical therapists has consistently grown in recent years, and this trend is likely to continue.
If you are looking for a career that enables you to help people and earn a secure income, then training as a physical therapist may be what you are looking for.
If you already hold a bachelor’s degree, you may find that qualifying as a physical therapist is much easier than you think. However, it is always a good idea to check the exact requirements for the course you are looking to take.
You should also check any specific requirements that relate to practicing in your chosen state.
Once you have gained your qualifications and license, you are ready to get to work.
Many people find that working as a physical therapist is incredibly rewarding as they are making a positive difference to other people’s lives.