Becoming a Certified Hand Therapist: Salary & Job Description

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Get the truth about a certified hand therapist's salary, training requirements and career prospects. Read the job description and see the pros and cons of becoming a certified hand therapist.
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A Certified Hand Therapist Career: The Pros and Cons

A certified hand therapist (CHT) is credentialed to offer a type of rehabilitative therapy involving not only the hand but also the entire upper limb. Consider the following pros and cons before entering into the hand therapy industry.

Pros of a Certified Hand Therapist Career
Above average salary ($78,000+ for CHTs)*
Very high employment growth (36% and 29% in 2012-2022 for physical and occupational therapists, respectively)**
Multiple employment options (hospitals, nursing homes, outpatient facilities, home healthcare services, etc.)**
Daily opportunity to help others improve their quality of life**

Cons of a Certified Hand Therapist Career
Extensive education/training requirements (1-3 years post-bachelor's degree)**
5 years of clinical experience required for CHT eligibility***
Continuing education required to keep certification*** and state license**
Irregular working hours may be required (occupational therapists in particular)**

Sources: *Payscale.com, **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ***Hand Therapy Certification Commission.

Essential Career Information

Job Description

CHTs are experienced in either occupational or physical therapy. They understand the delicate anatomical structure of the hands, wrists and throughout the upper limbs. Working with patients who've undergone surgeries in this part of the body is common, so interacting with surgeons is often a part of the job. Hand therapists also treat those who've experienced traumatic injuries, such as burns or fractures, or have chronic conditions, such as arthritis (www.assh.org). CHTs use adaptive devices to help their patients and train them in how to perform exercises at home. Due to the nature of their work, CHTs are typically employed in hospitals and other healthcare settings.

Salary and Career Outlook

According to Payscale.com, the salary range for CHTs as of June 2015 is about $60,143-$101,018, a wide range that varies based on years of experience. According to the Hand Therapy Certification Commission (HTCC) certified hand therapists made on average $10,660 more in 2013 than non-certified hand therapists. Taking a look at the earnings of occupational therapists and PTs can be helpful for getting an idea of what kind of income to expect. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the mean annual wage for occupational therapists in 2014 was about $80,000. BLS data from 2014 also shows that PTs earned a mean wage of about $83,940 a year.

Occupational therapists and PTs can expect faster than average job growth in 2012-2022 with rates of 29% and 36%, respectively (www.bls.gov). An aging population and medical advancements, which increase survival rates, are factors in these impressive figures, according to the BLS. Occupational therapists, in particular, who specialize in a particular type of treatment are expected to have even better job opportunities. The majority of CHTs (86%) are occupational therapists who've chosen to specialize in hand therapy, reports the HTCC.

Training and Credentialing Requirements

Education and Training

After first earning a bachelor's degree that included several courses in the sciences, aspiring PTs earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) or a Master in Physical Therapy degree. Similarly, aspiring occupational therapists typically complete a master's degree program lasting 2 years. Supervised experience working in the field is a vital part of training for both PTs and occupational therapists.

CHTs must have a minimum of 4,000 hours of verified work experience in administering hand therapy in a clinical setting. The American Society of Hand Therapists (ASHT) offers home study courses as well as on-site training sessions and conferences at various locations throughout the country (www.asht.org). In addition, you may pursue formal training through certain academic institutions. Some offer certificate, degree and fellowship programs in hand therapy specifically for PTs or occupational therapists.

Licensure and Certification

State licensure is required for occupational and physical therapists. Though states vary in all of their requirements, occupational therapists must have an accredited degree and pass the National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapists examination. PTs must also possess an accredited degree in the field and pass an examination. The exam may be developed by the state, but many use the national exam developed by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. Both PTs and occupational therapists may be subject to continuing education requirements to maintain their license.

As for hand therapy certification, eligibility is based on clinical experience and licensure. In addition to the 4,000 hours of verified experience in delivering hand therapy to patients, candidates must also provide documentation of working as a PT or occupational therapist for at least 5 years. A copy of the state license is also required. Those deemed eligible by the HTCC must pass an exam. CHTs maintain their credential by completing professional development credits or retaking the exam every 5 years.

Useful Skills

Beyond the training and credentialing requirements for this career, there are other qualities important to doing well on the job. For instance, CHTs should have patience and compassion for hurt patients who may be difficult to work with. They should also have good oral and written communication skills for interacting with patients, their families and other healthcare professionals. Finally, physical endurance and ease of mobility is important.

What Real Employers Look For

Licensure as an occupational or physical therapist is the standard requirement employers look for when filling a position for a CHT. Prior experience working with medical professionals and CPR certification are also common requirements. To get an idea of what type of opportunities are out there for a CHT, take a look at these real job openings available in April 2012.

  • A healthcare system in Milwaukee needs a licensed occupational therapist who is also a certified hand therapist. The therapist will practice in an outpatient setting and work late 2 weeknights. The position, which may be full-time or part-time, involves working with a group of hand surgeons and providing orthopedic services primarily for the upper extremities. The employer is looking for a candidate who is experienced in both working with hand surgeons and providing orthopedic outpatient services.
  • An Ohio orthopedic facility is seeking a full-time certified, or certified-eligible, hand therapist. The position requires patient evaluations and treatment in addition to support staff supervision. Recordkeeping and reporting are also important to the job. The therapist must be licensed as a physical or occupational therapist. CPR certification, including basic life support/automated external defibrillation training, is required as well.
  • A Louisiana community-based hospital system is looking for a full-time certified hand therapist to work with orthopedic surgeons as well as implement treatment plans for rehabilitation patients in an outpatient and inpatient setting. In addition to hand therapy certification, the candidate must be licensed as a physical therapist.

How to Maximize Your Skills

Specialization

If you obtain certification in hand therapy, you've already got an edge when looking for a PT or occupational therapy position. The BLS reports that both types of therapists are expected to have the most opportunities in medical settings treating the elderly. Gaining experience working with this age group could help you stand out. Relevant work experience can help you meet the requirements for board certification in geriatrics from the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties. The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc., also offers certification in gerontology, among others.

PTs can opt to complete a residency in a specialty, which usually lasts 9 months to 3 years, according to the BLS. Some schools offer residencies in hand therapy as well. Though specialization can help you on the job hunt, remember that obtaining certifications can be pricy.

Advancing Your Skills

The American Physical Therapy Association offers leadership training programs at various locations throughout the country. The organization also has courses, including some available online, that can help you build skills in specialties and practice administration (www.apta.org). Additionally, the American Occupational Therapy Association offers a leadership training program for students and new therapists that also includes mentorship (www.aota.org).

Alternate Career Paths

Occupational Therapy or Physical Therapy Assistant

Not so keen on the extensive training required for becoming a CHT? You may want to consider working as an assistant to a therapist in these fields. Know upfront you'll earn less: occupational therapy assistants earned a mean annual wage of about $52,000 in 2011, according to the BLS. You only need a 2-year associate degree to work in this occupation - one that is expected to enjoy a 2010-2020 job growth of 33%.

Employment growth for the PT assistant occupation is expected to be even faster during the decade at 46%. Assistants in physical therapy need an associate degree. Their 2011 mean annual wage earnings were about $51,000. Both occupational and physical therapy assistants are required to obtain licensure in most states.

Chiropractor

Chiropractors can expect faster than average job growth (28%) for 2010-2020. Like PTs and occupational therapists, chiropractors administer hands-on therapies and treatments to improve patients' quality of life. Their work is primarily focused on the musculoskeletal system, but they also consider patients' other behaviors, such as exercise habits, to develop treatment plans. Chiropractors must complete a 4-year program that awards a Doctor of Chiropractic degree. To be eligible for admission, candidates need to have at least 90 undergraduate credits. These licensed professionals earned a mean wage of about $79,000 annual in 2011, according to the BLS.

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