Helping Others Heal: Necessary Steps to Become a Physical Therapist

Have you always wanted to pursue a career in physical therapy? Learn what steps you'll need to take to become a physical therapist and start a fruitful career

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December 22, 2019
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Looking for a way to enter the medical field without having to do surgeries or treat infectious diseases? You should consider physical therapy.

U.S. News ranked Physical Therapy 16th out of the best healthcare jobs and one of the top 20 best jobs overall. With a median salary of well over $80,000 and a rapid growth rate, it’s easy to see why this rewarding career is so popular.

But how do you become a physical therapist, and what does a day in the job look like? Read on to find out.

What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

A physical therapist works to help people improve their strength, range of motion, and independence. They often work with people following an illness or injury to reduce pain and restore physical function.

They often serve as part of an allied health team alongside occupational therapists, speech therapists, and other medical professionals.

PTs work in a wide variety of settings, but here are three of the most common places you can expect to get a job.

Hospital PT

A physical therapist that works in a hospital will make rounds to treat people who’ve been admitted. They may see people who had major surgery, people who are weak following an illness, or people who lost motor function after a stroke.

An examination might include testing muscles for strength and function, diagnosing problems, creating a personalized exercise program, and helping the patient with gentle stretches and exercises. A PT may also use modalities like massage, ultrasound, and electronic stimulation to treat patients.

A hospital PT may also see some outpatients who have been discharged, but they mainly treat inpatients.

Outpatient Rehab Clinic

Many people still need PT treatment after they’ve been discharged from the hospital. Others have injuries or medical conditions that don’t require surgery, but still leave them in a lot of pain. Rather than seeing a hospital PT, they’ll often have appointments at an outpatient rehab clinic.

Some rehab clinics are owned by hospitals, and some are private businesses. They’ll often also house occupational and speech therapy, but some locations only provide PT.

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At an outpatient clinic, you can expect to see patients suffering from a huge range of conditions. You’ll see sports injuries, joint replacements, chronic back pain, and people suffering from degenerative diseases like MS and Parkinson’s.

Pediatrics

Like working with little kids more than adults? Pediatric physical therapy could be a good fit for you. Pediatric PTs work in outpatient clinics, hospitals, and schools. They might also make home visits for medically fragile children.

They can help to treat children with motor development delays, children recovering from injuries or illnesses, and those who need prosthetics or assistive equipment.

Getting Started on the Right Track

If you want to become a physical therapist, it’s a good idea to start preparing while you’re still in high school. If you can, choose classes in biology, chemistry, and math to prepare for your college courses.

When you attend college, choose a degree that prepares you for a career in medicine. Some schools offer pre-PT degrees, but you’ll do fine with a pre-med or health science focus. PT school is competitive, so it’s important to maintain a high GPA and stay involved in extracurricular activities.

How to Become a Physical Therapist

After you have an undergraduate degree, the next step in becoming a physical therapist is to attend a graduate program. Physical therapists now need a doctorate (called a DPT) to practice, so you can expect to be in school for quite a while. You’ll take classes on anatomy and physiology, human development, medical conditions, and applied PT.

Before you can start practicing as a PT, you have to meet your state’s licensing requirements. Every state has slightly different procedures for licensing, so make sure you research the ones for the state you hope to work in.

After their doctorate program, many PTs apply to a year-long clinical residency program. This year is full of intensive training under an experienced PT and is especially helpful for people who want to pursue a certain specialty.

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And finally, some PTs decide to become board-certified with the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS). To do so, you’ll select one of eight sub-specialties and complete a residency in it or do 2000 hours of clinical work. You can then take an exam to become an accredited specialist.

Keeping Your Certification Up to Date

Once you’ve become a licensed Physical Therapist, it’s still important to keep up with the ever-changing field. You’ll also need to stay fresh on the skills you don’t use every day.

To solve that problem, PTs are required to get a certain number of continuing medical education (CME) credits every year. These credits are earned by spending a certain amount of time studying approved courses.

You can meet some of your continuing education requirements with remote online classes. But for others, you’ll need to attend an in-person training conference—often in a fun location. The Gulfcoast Ultrasound Institute Musculoskeletal Ultrasound Training CME Courses have quite a few to choose from in the sunny state of Florida.

Is Physical Therapy the Right Career Choice for You?

If you think you’d like to become a physical therapist, the time to get started is now.

If you’re still in school, make sure you take classes that will gear you toward a medical career. If you’re already in the workforce and are looking for a career change, consider taking classes at a community college to meet the requirements for grad school. Or, start by getting certified as a Physical Therapy Assistant and work your way up from there.

No matter the path you take to get there, physical therapy is a challenging and rewarding career. To learn more about the wide variety of careers in medicine, make sure to check out the rest of our site.