Physiotherapist Careers: Salary Information & Job Description

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What are the pros and cons of a physiotherapist career? Get real job duties, career outlook and salary info to see if becoming a physiotherapist is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Physiotherapist Career

Physiotherapists, more commonly referred to as physical therapists, are medical professionals who provide rehabilitative and pain management care to individuals with medical conditions or injuries. Read the pros and cons below to see if becoming a physical therapist would be a good career move for you.

Pros of Being a Physiotherapist
Good earning potential - the 2014 annual median salary was about $82,390*
Employment opportunities are predicted to increase 36% from 2012 through 2022*
You can find employment practically anywhere in the U.S. (and abroad)*
Most employers provide full-time work opportunities*

Cons of Being a Physiotherapist
Higher education costs due to graduate degree requirement - total costs of the graduate program could exceed $87,471 for three years**
You could spend approximately 6-7 years in college (undergraduate and graduate studies combined)*
Physical stamina required. You may spend most of your time on your feet.*
Some physical risk. Your work may involve frequent to occasional lifting of equipment and/or patients.***

Sources: * U.S. Bureau Labor and Statistics, **American Physical Therapy Association, ***Online job postings (found April 2012).

Career Information

Job Description

As a physiotherapist, you evaluate patients, set recovery goals and help facilitate what you believe is the best course of action to meet those goals. You provide care to patients affected by an array of problems, such as fractures, sprains, strokes, arthritis, cerebral palsy, amputations and other injuries or conditions. Your patient evaluations would include watching patients attempt various physical activities (e.g., walking, standing) and diagnosing them based on their movements and vocal feedback. Action plans would generally involve one or more treatment techniques/methods - referred to as modalities - that may include exercises, with or without equipment; cold therapy, such as ice packs; heat therapy, including hot whirlpool baths and heat packs; manual/hands-on manipulation of limbs; and massages.

In addition to coordinating treatment plans, you may also create wellness programs. Your focus would center on preventative care through fitness development and education. While orchestrating both treatment and wellness plans, you may work with other healthcare professionals, such as physical therapist assistants, primary care physicians and specialists.

Specialization Options

Usually, physical therapy specializations are not formally designated during graduate studies, but instead are chosen while acquiring work experience. According to the American Physical Therapy Association, specialization options include cardiovascular and pulmonary, clinical electrophysiology, geriatrics, neurology, orthopaedics, pediatrics, sports and women's health.

Salary Info

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that in May 2014 the median salary of physiotherapists was approximately $82,390. The lowest ten percent of wage earners in this profession received $56,800 or less annually during that same period; however, the top ten percent earned a salary of $116,090 or more.

While your earning potential is considerable, also factor in the costs of student loan debt and repayment, if applicable. The cost for graduate studies greatly varies among schools. In 2013, the total for tuition and fees ranged from $14,400 per year for in-state, public programs to over $31,700 for a private education, according to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).

What Are the Career Requirements?

Currently, in order to practice healthcare as a physical therapist in the U.S., you must have either a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree, which usually takes 3 years to complete, or a Master of Physical Therapy (MPT) degree, which takes 2-3 years to complete. MPT degree programs are slowly being replaced by DPT programs in schools. However, both DPT and existing MPT programs may be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education.

To gain admission into a DPT or MPT program, you usually must have a bachelor's degree; however, some DPT/MPT programs admit candidates who have completed three years of baccalaureate studies and specific coursework. Your bachelor's degree would preferably be in a related discipline, such as biology, health science or kinesiology. Pre-physical therapy programs are also available at some schools, which consist of a bachelor's degree in an existing related discipline, such as biology, and include coursework designed to prepare you for a physical therapy graduate program.

While undergraduate degrees in specific disciplines may not be required for admission, some schools may require certain coursework in life or medical sciences such as physiology, chemistry and anatomy. In addition to the advanced educational training you receive through a DPT or MPT program, you may participate in a residency program to gain supervised, hands-on work experience. Residency programs are generally completed in 9 months to 3 years.

Licensing

The BLS reports that all U.S. states require that physical therapists to be licensed. While other state requirements - such as registration and certification - vary among states, you must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) for licensure, which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. Currently, the NPTE is a computer-based, multiple choice exam that is facilitated at Prometric testing centers.

What Employers Are Looking For

The educational standard for physical therapists prior to 2000 was a bachelor's degree in physical therapy. It took several years for the current DPT/MPT degree requirement to become fully established. Therefore, some employers may list a bachelor's degree as the minimum degree requirement in order to accommodate applicants who retain their license under the former guideline.

The American Physical Therapy Association reports that you may work in a variety of environments, such as hospitals, outpatient clinics, hospices, sports training centers, schools and inpatient rehabilitation facilities. Below are a few job postings from real employers, found online in April 2012, with information on what they look for in job candidates.

  • A healthcare organization in Chicago, IL, wants to hire a physical therapist who has a master's or doctorate degree in physical therapy, or a bachelor's degree earned prior to 2004. The candidate must be licensed or eligible for licensure in Illinois. In addition to clinical competencies, good communication and interpersonal skills are also required.
  • A hospital in Charlotte, NC, is looking for a licensed physical therapist who has work experience in a similar setting and has graduated from an accredited physical therapy program. Passing an in-house competency and department-specific skill test is required.
  • A rehabilitation facility in Philadelphia, PA, would like to hire a physical therapist who has obtained a Pennsylvania license, CPR certification and has a bachelor's or master's degree in physical therapy.

How to Stand Out in the Field

One way to highlight your skills in the job market is to become board certified in your clinical specialization. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties reports that earning certification is a good way to earn formal recognition for your skills and expertise. In order to be eligible, you need at least 2,000 hours of work experience in your desired specialty area, with 25% of those hours having been obtained in the past three years. Currently, certification is given upon passing a six-hour multiple choice examination.

Staying current on the latest modalities and technologies may also help you stand out. By joining a trade organization, such as the American Physical Therapy Association, you would receive industry updates, continuing education opportunities and professional group affiliation.

Alternative Career Paths

Physical Therapist Assistant

If you would like to work in the field of physical therapy, but the education costs and time frame are disincentives, there other related career options available. For example, as a physical therapist assistant, you would also provide physical rehabilitative care to patients, but in more of a support (versus care management) capacity, under the supervision of a physiotherapist. Your educational requirement would be an associate's degree, which is generally obtained within two years. However, the 2011 annual median salary of physical therapist assistants was approximately $51,000, which is about $27,000 less than a physical therapists annual median salary during the same time.

Recreational Therapist

If you choose to work as a recreational therapist, you could develop and coordinate recreation programs for people with different types of medical conditions. These recreation programs could include physical activity, such as sports, or non-physical activity, such as creative works. You would have lesser degree of physical risk and the minimum educational requirement is a bachelor's degree. However, the May 2011 annual median salary for recreational therapists was about $41,000, which was $37,000 less than a physiotherapist's 2011 annual median salary.

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