Everything You Need to Know About Becoming a Physical Therapist

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By Thomas P. Werner, PT, MA, PhD

Physical therapists help patients with injuries and chronic health conditions regain their range of motion, manage their pain, and improve their quality of life. For example, if you need help managing lower back pain or recovering from an ACL tear, you would go to a physical therapist. PTs also play a critical role in treating musculoskeletal conditions and educating patients about staying fit and preventing future injuries. In honor of Physical Therapy Month in October, we celebrate its vital role in health care and hope to spread awareness for those interested in pursuing a career in this rewarding field.

To become a physical therapist, you need to have a bachelor’s degree, preferably in a science-related field. Then you need to earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree from a CAPTE-accredited physical therapist program. The DPT is the entry-level degree to the profession. Most programs take three years or more to complete and include classroom work, hands-on lab activities, and clinical internship experiences.  

Following graduation, you must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE), which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT). You must also pass your home state’s licensure exam. State requirements for licensure vary.

Physical therapists work in various settings, ranging from private clinics and hospitals to work settings and sports facilities. They work with patients to improve their movement and manage their pain. PTs use various techniques to help their patients, including hands-on therapy, strengthening and stretching exercises, electrical stimulation, ultrasound, ice/heat, and much more. They also work with patients who suffer from back and neck injuries, fractures, neurological disorders, work or sports-related injuries, and other conditions. The treatments a physical therapist chooses will depend on the patient and their injury. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, physical therapists work with patients by: 

  • Reviewing patients’ medical histories
  • Diagnosing patients by observing their movements and listening to their concerns 
  • Developing individualized care plans for patients 
  • Outlining clear goals for patients and the expected outcomes of the plan
  • Using exercises, stretching, equipment, and hands-on therapy to manage patients’ pain, increase mobility, and prevent further pain and injury 
  • Recording patients’ progress and modifying the plan of care if needed 
  • Educating patients and family members about the recovery process 

Being a physical therapist can be mentally and physically draining. It’s a role that requires hands-on, individualized patient care. 

Some of the job skills needed to be a physical therapist are: 

  • Stamina 
  • Compassion 
  • Interpersonal communication skills 
  • Attention to detail 
  • Dexterity 
  • Creative problem solving
  • Resourcefulness 
  • Time management

Physical therapy offers several opportunities for advancement. You can choose to continue your education with a clinical residency or fellowship or opt to specialize in one or more areas. Many PTs decide to become leaders in the field by opening their own private practice. 

After earning a DPT degree, licensed physical therapists can pursue a residency or fellowship to further their education. A clinical residency is an optional, structured program that licensed physical therapists can take post-graduation. Typically, one year long, it is a clinical and didactic education designed to advance a physical therapist’s preparation as a provider of patient care services in a specific area of practice. 

A clinical fellowship follows the residency and is similar in structure. It is for physical therapists who have clinical expertise in a defined clinical practice area related to the focus of the fellowship. A fellowship programs must havea curriculum that with subspecialty area of practice focus, a mentored clinical experience and a patient population that creates an environment for advanced clinical skill-building. 

Once they have significant practice experience, a physical therapist can become board certified as a clinical specialist through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) in one of several specialty areas, including: Cardiovascular and pulmonary, Geriatrics, Pediatrics, Oncology, Neurology, Clinical electrophysiology, Orthopedics, Sports, Women’s Health, or Wound Management.

To become board-certified, applicants must pass an exam and complete an APTA-accredited residency program or at least 2,000 hours of clinical work. 

If you’re excited by the possibility of helping patients as a physical therapist, make sure to choose a grad school that offers a strong Doctor of Physical Therapy program that will challenge you to become a versatile, empathetic, and autonomous practitioner. 

The largest PT school in the United States, the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers a hands-on Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. Practice with mock and real patients in our state-of-the-art simulation centers and learn anatomy with our high-tech tools. Prepare for clinical practice with a wide range of patients, as well as advanced roles in research, practice leadership, and policymaking. Residential and Flex (weekend-focused) pathways are available.

 Dr. Werner joined USAHS in Fall 2012 and has over two decades of experience in private practice. He completed a BS in Physical Therapy and a BS in Psychology in the School of Arts, Letters, and Science at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse. He earned an MA and PhD in Human and Organizational Systems in the School of Human and Organization Development at Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, CA. After earning his PhD, Werner embarked on a 3-year Fellow position, as a theoretician, with the Institute of Social Innovation, Santa Barbara, CA. In addition, he completed a yearlong evidence-based, accredited executive coach-training program by the International Coach Federation. Werner’s areas of clinical specialization are in the fields of orthopedic & sports injury care, the management of chronic postural dysfunction, and the use of Pilates and Gyrotonics for sport specific training.

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