What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

Everything about salary, skills, and licensing

A day in the life of a physical therapist: Create PT treatment plans to improve or restore a patient's mobility and reduce pain, continually reassess resource utilization as patient progresses toward goals, test and measure patient's strength, range of motion, muscle performance, examine patient's medical history

The Balance / Evan Polenghi

Physical therapists, or PTs, help people who have been in accidents, have suffered a sports- or work-related injury, or experience conditions such as lower back pain, arthritis, heart disease, and cerebral palsy. PTs use a variety of techniques, including exercises and localized movements of joints and muscles. The purpose is to help the patient:

  • Restore function
  • Improve mobility
  • Relieve pain
  • Prevent or limit permanent physical disabilities

Physical therapists supervise physical therapist assistants and physical therapy aides. Together, they are members of a team that also includes doctors, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists.

Physical Therapist Duties and Responsibilities

This job generally requires the ability to do the following tasks:

  • Direct patient care under the authorization of a physician
  • Create and update treatment plans
  • Test and measure patients' strength and flexibility
  • Advise and consult with patients, family members, physicians, and other medical professionals on the care and treatment of patients
  • Complete appropriate paperwork as needed
  • Oversee physical therapist assistants and physical therapy aides

The type of care that a physical therapist provides is determined by the needs of individual patients. Some PTs develop specialties, such as cardiac, geriatric, or pediatric patients. They may also develop programs that encourage patients to adopt overall healthier lifestyles.

The Physical Therapist's Salary

A physical therapist's salary varies according to the geographical area, specialty, and number of years on the job.

  • Median Annual Salary: $91,010
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $126,780
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $63,530

Education, Training, and Certification

Aspiring physical therapists must graduate from a physical therapist educational program with a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. Candidates for that degree generally have a bachelor's degree in a related discipline and typically take three years to obtain their DPT. Some schools offer a six- or seven-year program in which students obtain both a bachelor's degree and a DPT.

Licensing

All U.S. states require physical therapists to be licensed. They have to take the National Physical Therapy Exam, which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT).

Note

Each state generally has its own PT license, though there are some states that are part of a "compact" agreement. This means that a license is valid in those other states for only a little bit of additional paperwork.

Residencies and Fellowships

PTs may choose to enter a clinical residency program in which they receive specialized training and gain experience in a particular area of care. They can also go on to pursue a fellowship in the same specialty. The American Board of Physical Therapy Residency and Fellowship Education, which accredits residency and fellowship programs, provides a directory of these programs, listed according to the area of specialization, on its website.

Continuing Education

PTs must take continuing education classes and attend workshops to maintain their licenses. Specific requirements vary by state. Find a list of state licensing authorities on the FSBPT website.

Example

Name: Colorado State Physical Therapy Board

Email: dora_physicaltherapyboard@state.co.us

Phone: (303) 894-7800

Fax: (303) 894-7693

Physical Therapist Skills and Competencies

Successful physical therapists need to have the following skills and traits to perform their job successfully:

  • Active listening: They must be able to listen carefully to patients' questions and concerns about their treatment.
  • Verbal communication: Patients must be able to understand their instructions for treatment in order to be successful.
  • Service orientation: Success in any healthcare career requires a strong desire to help people.
  • Physical strength: To manipulate patients' bodies and move them around, they must be physically strong.

Job Outlook

The number of physical therapist jobs is expected to grow by 18% from 2019 to 2029. That's much faster than the average for all occupations.

The BLS cites the large number of aging baby boomers who will need physical therapy treatments and the increased prevalence of certain conditions that will cause patients to seek help maintaining their mobility.

Work Environment

Physical therapists can work in PT practices, hospitals, nursing homes, and rehabilitation centers. The BLS notes that physical therapists spend much of their time on their feet. They are vulnerable to back injuries and so must be careful to use proper techniques when lifting and moving patients.

Work Schedule

Most PTs work full-time. They typically work a regular workweek, but some may work nights, weekends, or holidays.

How to Get the Job

WRITE A TARGETED RESUME AND COVER LETTER

Create a resume and cover letter that play up your strengths and will make HR representatives and hiring managers eager to interview you. Remember that you can check out sites like Fiverr for resume-writing and -editing tips.

APPLY

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) lists job openings nationwide. You may also find postings on sites with job boards, such as LinkedIn.

Comparing Similar Jobs

People who are interested in becoming physical therapists might also consider the following jobs. The figures provided are median annual salaries:

Key Takeaways

  • Physical therapists help people who have physical limitations work on regaining their mobility.
  • PTs work in a team of health care providers, along with doctors, occupational therapists, and others.
  • Physical therapists must graduate from a physical therapist educational program with a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree.
  • The number of physical therapist jobs is expected to grow by 18% from 2019 to 2029. That's much faster than the average for all occupations.

Article Sources

  1. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "What Physical Therapists Do." Accessed Aug 17, 2021.

  2. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Pay." Accessed Aug. 17, 2021.

  3. PDH Academy. "What Physical Therapists Should Know About Multi-State Licensure." Accessed Aug. 17, 2021.

  4. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Job Outlook." Accessed Aug. 17, 2021.

  5. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Healthcare Occupations." Accessed Aug. 17, 2021.