How to Become a Physical Therapist

To become a physical therapist requires intensive training. Physical therapists are very much in demand in the US, and one of the fastest growing professions in the workforce. The market for physical therapy is huge, covering medical, athletic, and therapeutic sectors.

Education and training

Undergraduate training begins with admission requirement for basic science, covering biology, chemistry, and physics. Admission to programs may also require volunteer experience in physical therapy in a hospital or a clinical practice.

The graduate studies progressively cover neuroanatomy, physiology, examination and diagnosis techniques, therapies, and includes lab and practical clinical work under supervision.

Formal qualifications from an accredited physical therapy program are required to practice. In the US, the American Physical Therapy Association is the accrediting authority. Of the 209 accredited programs, 166 are two year Masters Degree level courses. The other 43 are three year doctoral programs. 

Licensing

All US physical therapists must be licensed in their state to practice. For state licensing purposes successfully passing national and state level examinations is a standard requirement. In some states ongoing education is a requirement of licenses. 

The work environment

Physical therapy covers an extraordinary range of medical and health situations. Almost any ongoing medical or basic health condition may require some form of physical therapy.

The workload can be equally extraordinary. The daily demand for services can include multiple courses of therapy for each patient, special treatments for patients with major conditions, counseling and advisory services, developing therapeutic strategies, examination, and monitoring programs.

In any therapeutic environment, the therapy provider requires good motivation, real talent and interest in the field. A physical therapist also needs several personal characteristics:

  • Excellent interpersonal skills
  • The ability to develop good client relationships
  • Personal commitment
  • Empathy and supportive skills
  • Good communication skills, with the ability to advise clearly
  • Problem solving skills
  • Effective counseling skills

Physical therapists provide essential support to medical treatments. This is a typical situation:

An construction worker sustains various injuries at work. The hospital doctor refers the worker to the physical therapist for examination and ongoing treatment to restore full function to damaged limbs and joints.

This is effectively case management, from the perspective of the physical therapist. The first requirements in this case are:

  1. Establish the level of injury and loss of function.

  2. Set up a therapy and exercise program to restore functions.

  3. Monitor the progress of the patient and the effectiveness of the therapy.

  4. Interact with the patient to provide support and advice, and get feedback.

  5. Report in detail to the treating doctor to evaluate the medical situation and interact with the doctor in terms of general therapeutic needs.

This treatment may go on for years. It may involve complex physical therapy in conjunction with medical treatments and extensive remedial surgery. The surgical aspect means that the physical therapist will often need to modify some of the care regimes to avoid damage to new surgery and not to put stress on the healing process.

A typical local physical therapy practice will receive referrals from doctors in the area on an almost daily basis. As a physical therapist, you have both doctors and patients depending on your skills. It's a big responsibility.