Physical therapists are licensed health care practitioners who specialize in rehabilitating patients with injuries or helping improve movement in people with functional problems caused by chronic health conditions. Some end goals of physical therapy include restoring an injured person back to full function and helping those with chronic conditions maintain as much physical independence as possible. Physical therapists can expect astounding employment growth of 39% between 2010 and 2020, with the best job opportunities available for PTs who work with the elderly in some capacity, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The median yearly salary for physical therapists was $76,310, but salaries can vary significantly based on your level of experience, the region of the country you work in, and your roles and responsibilities. Typical job responsibilities for physical therapists include the following:
- Assessing and diagnosing a patient’s injury or health condition
- Developing an individualized plan of care to treat the patient and outlining expected goals of physical therapy
- Helping patients perform different exercises, stretches, or other therapy modalities to improve physical function
- Evaluating the patient’s progress toward meeting stated goals for improvement, and modifying the plan of care as necessary if progress is not being made
- Educating patients on how they should manage their injuries or health conditions at home
To become a physical therapist, you must have a postgraduate professional degree in physical therapy and be licensed in the state you intend to practice in, according to the BLS. The typical educational path for a physical therapist is to first complete a bachelor’s degree in one of the hard sciences, such as biology, and select a Pre-Physical Therapy track. A student would then typically complete either a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) or a Master of Physical Therapy (MPT). PTs who want to enter a specialty, such as acute care or orthopedic care, may also complete a residency after they graduate from a professional program in physical therapy.
Licensed physical therapists who wish to transition into management and take up a position as director of physical therapy may want to look into schools with Masters in Healthcare degree options. These programs will allow PT practitioners to explore the business side of health care and provide valuable training in managing a team, ethical leadership, health care finance and accounting, human resources, and more. After all, PTs whose education was primarily clinical may not have completed course work that emphasizes how to run a health care department, lead others effectively, and how to work as part of a health care management team.
Featured Physical Therapist Profiles
Belinda Wurn is the national director for Clear Passage Physical Therapy, which has locations throughout the United States. Since earning her physical therapy degree in 1974, she’s accumulated more than 25,000 treatment hours to patients with pain, infertility, and sexual dysfunction. She has also completed extensive post-graduate training in her field and has helped developed the techniques used in her practice.
Daniel Brauning knew he wanted to run a physical therapy clinic. So when he went to school, he got a bachelor’s degree in business management and a master’s in physical therapy. Both experiences have led him to Ideal Physical Therapy, which has multiple locations in Tucson and Phoenix, Ariz.
Today, he works as a director of an ATI Physical Therapy clinic in Wilmington, Del., where he treats a wide variety of orthopedic conditions, work-related injuries, and post-operative patients. He is also a certified clinic instructor through the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) and has mentored new clinicians throughout his career.
Kristin McNealus knew she wanted to be a physical therapist when he was a child, when she visited a children’s hospital and watched a patient get aqua therapy. "I decided, ‘That’s what I want to do!’" says McNealus. Today, she has been a practicing physical therapist for nearly nine years. She recently launched SCI Total Fitness, an online exercise program for people with spinal cord injuries.
Noah Arenson knows first-hand how beneficial physical therapy can be. After suffering a back injury in high school he needed rehabilitation. This experience, coupled with his own interest in anatomy and physiology, led him down the path towards becoming a physical therapist himself.
Sara Daly is one of those multi-hyphenates. She is a physical therapist, a massage therapist, and a complex lymphatic therapist. She runs her own day spa and wellness center in Middlebury, Vt., and is director of the Vermont Wellness Professionals Network. She also writes about the profession on her blog, Upstream Wellness, and for continuing education companies.
After witnessing her friend make a full recovery from a potentially debilitating spinal cord injury, Shirael Pollack knew physical therapy was the path for her. As owner and director of Watch Me Grow, a pediatric therapy center and children’s sensory gym in New York, she helps children overcome their own physical and developmental challenges. She’s been recognized as an “Everyday Hero” by WPIX’s “Dr. Steve” show.