Types of Jobs Available in Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is an important area of healthcare. Workers in this field provide patients with guided and prescribed exercises, hands-on treatment and care, and education to help improve mobility and increase pain. Physical therapy is used for patients recovering from surgery or an injury and for those who have disabilities or have suffered from neurological or brain injuries that impact movement.

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There are a few different career options for anyone interested in physical therapy, from the therapists themselves to their assistants and aides. The positions differ in levels of responsibility for patient care, training and state licensing. Any of these careers is rewarding and a meaningful contribution to healthcare.

Physical Therapists

Physical therapists, or PTs, are licensed and highly educated. They have the most responsibility in working with patients. Duties of PTs include:

  • Reviewing patient medical records and histories
  • Communicating with physicians to coordinate patient care
  • Planning courses of therapy for patients
  • Helping patients set goals for treatment
  • Providing guided exercises, massage, stretching and use of equipment
  • Evaluating and recording patient progress
  • Providing education for patients and their families
  • Supervising assistants and aides in helping patients

Physical therapists may work in a variety of settings, including therapy practices, hospitals, nursing homes and other residential facilities, and for home healthcare services. Some physical therapists are self-employed and own their own practices.

Physical Therapist Assistants

Many physical therapists hire assistants, or PTAs. The assistants do a lot of the hands-on work with patients but under the indirect supervision of their PTs. They cannot prescribe treatments or diagnose patients, but they can guide exercises, educate patients, provide hands-on therapies like massage and stretching, and record patient concerns and progress. PTAs communicate with PTs about ongoing care for patients.

Physical Therapist Aides

Aides may also be hired to work for PTs. They have fewer responsibilities, and while they can assist patients moving from one part of the office to another, aides do not work independently with patients. Primary duties for physical therapist aides are keeping treatment areas clean and set up for the next patient, laundering linens, assisting patients to and from the treatment area, and performing administrative tasks, such as answering the phones and making appointments.

Differences in Education and Licensing

Educational requirements are greatest for physical therapists. To become a PT you must earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree, or DPT. Most DPT programs require that you have a bachelor’s degree before being accepted and then take about three years to complete. PTs must then pass a national certification test and apply for licensing in the state in which they want to work.

A state license is also required for PTAs. They are usually licensed through the same state agency as PTs. Most states require that PTAs complete a two-year accredited program in physical therapist assisting. PTAs must then pass a national exam and apply for licensure.

Physical therapist aides do not need a college degree or certificate to work. Most employers of aides require that they have a high school diploma at least. Training and learning are typically done on the job and may take a couple of weeks to a month.

Salary Expectations

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, physical therapists earn $86,850 per year on average. PTs working in nursing homes make the most, at more than $90,000. The median annual salary for a PTA is $57,430, while for aides it is $25,730. This reflects the differences in training requirements and on-the-job responsibilities.

Career Outlook and Job Growth

For all three types of careers—for PTs, PTAs and aides—job growth is strong. Healthcare careers in general are growing at a fast pace, but physical therapy is one of the fastest. The growth rate for new positions for PTs is 28 percent. For aides and assistants it is closer to 30 percent. This means that if you are qualified to do any of these jobs, finding a position should not be difficult.

There are some important differences between the different types of physical therapy degrees. But what they all have in common is that they are dedicated to helping people. All of these careers are also physically demanding and require that you be in good shape and on your feet most of the day. If this sounds like a good career for you, consider which level of training, responsibility and salary you want before choosing a specific path.